Redefining Family: The Incentive Mentoring Program

I believe that it is possible to end the cycle of poverty, drug abuse and ineffectual education. And I believe that we can do it by redefining how we conceive of the word “family.” – Sarah Hemminger (appeared in Forbes)

Sarah Hemminger was excited to hear that I had not googled her name prior to sitting down recently to chat about the Incentive Mentoring Program. Tucked in the corner of Johns Hopkins’ Levering Hall on leather couches, Hemminger told her story – an epic, love story of advantage vs. disadvantage; an against all odds, heavy-weight battle. Well, that’s what her husband faced, at least.

Ryan Hemminger grew up, like Sarah, in Indiana. After a near-fatal car accident, Hemminger’s mother became addicted to painkillers and eventually began selling them, along with crack and heroin. Uprooted from his suburban home, Ryan and his mother moved into Section 8 housing and he went from a motivated, bright, young middle-schooler to a failing high school freshman.

Sarah credits her husband’s miraculous rebound to a few select teachers that took him under their wing. Helping out in any way they could – laundry, lunches, rides to school – the teachers provided the mentoring and support Ryan needed to get back on track. That track led him to become an “A” student and a Naval Academy graduate.


Pictured are Judeith James (left) with Sarah Hemminger (right). James went through IMP and graduated from Wesley College with a nursing degree.

Now, over fifteen years later, Sarah is the CEO and co-founder of the Incentive Mentoring Program – a non-profit organization that supports some of Baltimore’s most disadvantaged from Dunbar High School and ACCE High School with a network of nearly 700 mentors, mostly undergraduate and graduate student volunteers, as well as some professionals in the Baltimore community. Creatively designed as “houses” each group of up to eight mentors supports one student to start, gradually decreasing the number of mentors as the student excels and becomes more independent. This model allows the mentors to maintain a level of energy and devotion without burning out, as well as provides a hefty amount of support for the student coming from several directions.

Sarah was quick to credit her small paid staff of professionals that organize and mentor the “houses” of volunteers. After sitting in on an orientation session at Hopkins, I can say that “family” and “support” are two values that her staff bestow upon the tireless mentors.

The mentors start working with students at age 14 and support them in some capacity for ten years. The program just reached its 10-year anniversary, celebrating the first official class of IMP alumni. Of all the youth mentored in IMP, 100% have graduated from high school and 60% from a four-year college. Just to put that into perspective, only 6% of children born in Baltimore City graduate from four-year colleges.

IMP’s work has been featured in both Education Week and Forbes Magazine. Sarah told her story at TEDxBaltimore in 2011 (the video is featured below).

Lennon Flowers of Education Week ends his piece by asking, what is the secret [to IMP’s success]?  “Never, ever give up, to be sure.” He writes, “and, perhaps, just as simply: love more.”

Ain’t that the truth, Lennon. Hundreds of Baltimore’s youth are better off because of IMP’s work. Actually, we all are.


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