Coming full circle

As Kids Can Do! turns 20, a former mentee is trying to expand the program to another college

After Matt Van Sickle ’02 and Aukeem Ballard met in 1999, they’d often listen to music in Van Sickle’s car as they drove from place to place—ballad singers like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. The two had been introduced at a picnic sponsored by Kids Can Do!, a campus program, now in its 20th year at Puget Sound, that matches area youth with student mentors and, through weekly get-togethers, helps expose kids to life at a college.

And to new music.

“Matt would play different types of music and make a bet out of it,” Ballard recalls. “He’d put on a random song and say, ‘I’ll give you $50 if you can name this song.’ I couldn’t name them because we didn’t listen to the same music.”

Some 10 years later, their friendship is more like that of brothers—close brothers who even share a family phone plan—but it took time.

“I was a little apprehensive at first,” says Ballard. “I wasn’t talkative with strangers back then, especially men, since my mom raised me.” 

Van Sickle, who is now a foreign affairs specialist at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, D.C., remembers the quiet 9-year-old boy from Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood.

“Aukeem would answer only ‘good’ or ‘yes’ when I asked a question,” he says. “I had a friend who mentored his brother, and we’d wrack our brains for questions they couldn’t answer with one word.”

Today Ballard is a sophomore at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., who’s leaning toward a double major in English and communications. Quite a change from that shy little boy who barely spoke.

“There’s a real connection between the Kids Can Do! program and where I am now,” he says. “I can honestly say I don’t think I’d have been fortunate enough to accomplish as many things in my life.”

Through his association with Kids Can Do!, Ballard met Barry Sheridan, a friend of Jacki Pearce-Droge, director of the Puget Sound Community Involvement and Action Center (CIAC), who oversees Kids Can Do! Sheridan wanted to help out and arranged a scholarship for Ballard to attend Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma.

“I did the best I could, but that was one of the biggest things that helped Aukeem,” Van Sickle adds. “He went to a high school that gave him an edge.”

Pearce-Droge has witnessed a lot of success stories since she started the program in 1989.

“We based Kids Can Do! on the Big Brothers Big Sisters model,” she explains. “We wanted to get our mentors involved with the family. We wanted to focus on relationships.”

No question that’s what Ballard and Van Sickle did. “Matt helped raise me,” Ballard says. “And he still does. He flew back to help me move onto campus, and we talk at least once a week now.”

At Lewis and Clark, Ballard is a student-life intern in the college’s Center for Career and Community Engagement and a V.P. for community relations in student government because, he says, he “believes in the power of community engagement and student-leadership development.” Ballard is trying to bring the Kids Can Do! program to Lewis and Clark (with generous amounts of counsel from Pearce-Droge).

“It’s not easy. Insurance and legal issues get in the way. But I hope to at least bring kids to campus,” Ballard says. “I want to get community leaders on board. Everyone thinks it’s not just a good idea but a necessity.”

For now he’s working to include area youth in community-oriented events such as Fall Fair, a huge, carnival-like event on campus. And he brought in 20 elementary and middle school students from an area Boys and Girls Club for trick-or-treating a week before Halloween. “I enjoyed that when I was in Kids Can Do!,” Ballard adds.

Both men have favorite memories of their time together in Kids Can Do! Van Sickle was amazed at how much food Ballard could eat. “He was a growing kid, and he could really put it away,” he says. “Some kids wouldn’t like sushi, but he was really into that.”

Ballard recalls the road music. “Slowly I got interested in Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, but I didn’t tell Matt,” he says. “One day we’re in Borders in the Tacoma Mall, and a country song came on. Matt said, ‘I bet you $50 you can’t name that song.’ I named it,” Ballard laughs. “He doesn’t bet anymore.”  — Lynda McDaniel

Got a KCD story?
Jacki Pearce-Droge, director of the Puget Sound Community Involvement and Action Center, wants to hear your Kids Can Do! stories. “I hope alumni will let us know if they’re still in touch with the kids they mentored—or at least maintained a relationship for a period of time after college,” she says. “Just e-mail me at”