'Just being there makes all the difference'
By Robin Provey
What started out as a weekly game of checkers more than 10 years ago has turned into a lifelong friendship for Danbury High School senior Ke'Shown Brown and his Danbury Schools and Business Collaborative (DSABC) mentor Sanaa Almarayati.
Ke'Shown was in second grade at King Street School when Almarayati, a manager of legal services at Praxair in Danbury, came into his life. He said he wanted a mentor, someone to talk to and learn from. But Almarayati found it was she who learned from Ke'Shown, starting with the art of checkers.
"He taught me how to play. I couldn't understand this kid beating me. But he's good; he has strategy," Alamarayati said.
A Danbury native, Ke'Shown plays the drums and keyboard, likes math and plans to enroll in the automotive program at Naugatuck Valley Community College. He said his mentor has helped him and been there through difficult times. Raised by his grandparents, Ke'Shown lost his mother in 2014 and his grandmother last year - and Almarayati was there through it all. Her constant support and guidance kept him motivated, Ke'Shown said.
"She motivates me to do things I wouldn't do, like going to college," he said.
This year, his last in high school, has been less about checkers and more about Ke'Shown's future. Almarayati said she has seen him grow and mature - and she finally sees the culmination of all the advice, conversations and guidance.
"I see a young man who has matured with great confidence. This year there's been more to talk about because there's transition," she said. "Ke'Shown is more open this year, and we've been talking about his next step after high school and we talked about his options. I've seen him go through a lot of life challenges - he's always thinking out loud and he's mature and very good at communicating."
Almarayati said it took years before realizing the positive impact she'd had on Ke'Shown: "I didn't know I made a difference until recently," she said. "You never know what a child needs, so the best thing is just being there. He's telling me now about things that clicked with him. He's really listened and appreciated things I've said to him."
"And her advice I can pass on to other people," Ke'Shown said. When a friend recently went through a difficult time, Ke'Shown immediately remembered something Almarayati had said to him: "hang around with the right people - not the people who bring you down."
Almarayati, who started at Praxair in 2005, had worked at other corporations that encouraged community volunteering, but it was at Praxair that she learned about DSABC.
"It's nice to be one on one with a student," she said, but her early experiences weren't as fruitful as expected, as she had three students who didn't stay with the program. "I thought this might be a sign. But they said to try one more. Then Ke'Shown came along, and it's been great."
For all of those years, both Ke'Shown and Almarayati made the commitment to meet once a week during all of those school years. Almarayati said she had heard sometimes students don't want to talk or they don't want to see their mentors anymore. She said Ke'Shown was there waiting every week.
"I could rely on him too," she said. "It makes a huge difference. He's like my son now. I think we will be in contact forever."