EAST COUNTY — Braden River High School senior Rosbie Thompson was ready to leave the only home he ever knew.
But, first, he needed to tell the man he considers a father figure.
Thompson looked across the table and told George McQuillen, his mentor, he would move from his mother’s home to his grandparents’ home nearby.
Thompson, 17, and McQuillen, 74, are one of 250 Manatee County student-mentor pairs participating this year in Take Stock in Children, a statewide, non-profit mentor program that provides college scholarships to students from low-income families.
On the verge of becoming the first in his family to attend college, Thompson, a class officer and honors student, credits the Take Stock in Children program for saving his life.
“College would have never happened without Take Stock,” said Thompson, who plans to major in nursing at University of Central Florida. “I would always have ambitions, but I would have no money to get there. I would have no future without the program. I would be stuck here for the rest of my life.”
Take Stock scholarships are funded through fundraisers, such as the Strides for Education 5K taking place Dec. 8.
Thompson grew up with no male role model. When he was 5 years old, Thompson’s father, Rodney Williams, received an eight-year prison sentence because of drugs.
Thompson’s mother, Tamara, constantly switched jobs.
“It was just me, my mom, my siblings and horrible stepfathers,” Thompson said. “It was weird seeing all my friends with these perfect lives, in which their parents never fought and they had nice homes. I wanted that.”
In sixth grade at Lincoln Middle School, the school’s principal pushed Thompson to apply for Take Stock’s program.
Doubtful anything would come of it, Thompson wrote an essay detailing his need and interviewed in person with Take Stock officials.
“The process was hard,” Thompson said. “I thought there was no point. My essay was lousy and corny. It was me throwing my heart out talking about how hard my life had been.”
His story struck a cord, however, and Thompson worked with a mentor at Lincoln before meeting McQuillen.
A 30-year Army veteran, McQuillen signed on as a Take Stock mentor after a friend recommended it during a morning tennis game.
He had taught a little in the military, raised two sons and thought his steady demeanor made him an ideal mentor.
At the start of Thompson’s freshman year at Braden River, the mentoring sessions began with McQuillen, who would bring a book of recommended talking points. But, Thompson preferred something more informal.
“We never have a lesson plan,” Thompson said. “I kicked that out the first year. We used it once. Never again. I talk, and he listens. It can be kind of deep sometimes.”
Once a week, during 30-minute sessions, the two discuss teachers, girls and grades. They talk about college applications and about a life beyond Bradenton, which Thompson has never left, as McQuillen points to unfamiliar countries on a world map stretched out before them.
They talk about Williams, Thompson’s father, who left prison a few years ago and now lives nearby, trying to develop a relationship with a son with whom he never spent time. Williams recently bought his son a car.
“I regret not doing those things that kids do with my father,” Thompson said. “There are some things I can never get back. But I want to be that father for my kids in the future.”
Last month, McQuillen listened as Thompson told him he wanted to move in with his grandparents.
“George told me, ‘If that is the best decision for you and if it will benefit you in the long run, then do it,’” Thompson said. “My mom was heartbroken at first, but she understood.”
Through it all, Thompson stays decisive and positive, traits McQuillen admires.
“He is upbeat about everything,” McQuillen said. “I’ve never heard him once complain about his father. He doesn’t require much at all. He knows what he wants to do and is mature about it.”
McQuillen has never met Thompson’s parents or family. Through the holiday cards that McQuillen sends to his student and the weekly phone calls to schedule meetings, Thompson’s parents understand McQuillen’s impact.
“My parents love that George is a big part of my life,” Thompson said. “I consider him (McQuillen) a father.”
When told that Thompson calls his mentor a father, something they haven’t discussed face-to-face, McQuillen said, “I would say that’s an honor, actually.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].
IF YOU GO
Strides for Education
When: 8:30 a.m. Dec. 8
Where: New College of Florida, 5800 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota
What: Participate in a 5K walk/run to raise money for scholarships.
Cost: $25 registration fee
Info: Register at Strides4TampaBay.com.
Each county’s Take Stock in Children program raises money through donations made at events it hosts, but it also receives an operating budget from the state.
Money for college scholarships comes from private fundraising. The Florida Prepaid Foundation matches the scholarship dollars awarded.
Students in the sixth grade and up can apply for the 17-year-old public-private program.
To qualify, a child must be eligible for free and reduced lunch — a number that jumped to 58% in the county this year, up from 48% seven years ago, according to Diana Dill, Take Stock in Children Manatee executive director.
Because of shrinking scholarship dollars limited by the recession, only 20% of applicants are accepted. TSIC Manatee claims a 96% success rate of keeping students in school, graduating high school, attending college and entering the workforce.