In 2003, Mark and Kim Mathias celebrated their 1st year in Westport. They loved the town, but missed the racial diversity of Los Angeles.
Friends Ivan and Sharon Fong listened with interest. Both were on the board of A Better Chance of Westport. They described ABC’s mission — “giving motivated, outstanding minority youth the opportunity to achieve their dreams through education” — and suggested the Mathiases be a host family.
It was a great idea. A decade later, the family remains passionately involved.
(Host families provide a home away from the North Avenue residence every Sunday, and 1 weekend a month. ABC scholars participate in regular family activities — meals, movies, even chores.)
“We were very impressed by the courage these 13- and 14-year-old young men showed, leaving the comfort of their families to strive for a better education and opportunity in Westport,” Kim says.
“I was particularly intrigued by the culture shock I was sure these youth would feel, and how they handled it. ABC offers impressive support, but not everyone can handle the academic rigor, the congregate living, the rules, the fish bowl, the standing out in a high pressure community.”
Savion Agard was 13 he when arrived as a freshman in Westport. The Mathiases’ daughter Nicole was 6.
“We knew there would be adjustments, but Savion was to be treated as a member of the family — not a guest we entertained,” Kim recalls.
“In our family we say grace before meals. At the end of the prayer we give each other a light kiss. I was concerned about how Savion would feel.”
Nicole defused any discomfort when she blew him a kiss across the table. The ice was broken.
Savion proved a great fit for the family.
“He was easy-going — probably too easy-going when it came to his studies in the first year or so,” Kim reports.
Eventually, he found his way academically and socially. An older ABC scholar introduced Savion to rugby, which gave him a great group of friends and plenty of confidence.
“We watched Savion mature from a somewhat overwhelmed freshman trying to figure out how to manage his studies and all the ABC expectations placed on him, to a sophomore more comfortable with his ‘I’m not from here’ persona, to a junior who was comfortable at Staples, to a senior who had made friends and found a place for himself in the Class of 2007,” Kim says.
When a 2nd-grade friend saw a family photo and asked who Savion was, Nicole said, “That’s my big brother Savion.” The little girl wondered why he was a different color.
Instantly, Nicole replied, “You don’t have to be the same color to be a family.”
Kim was thrilled. “Neither Mark nor I had ever said those words to Nicole. She just knew it, because that was what we were living.”
A year after Savion became Nicole’s big brother, she became a big sister to her foster (now adopted) brother Nick. He and Savion developed a special relationship. It deepened after graduation.
When Savion returned to Westport to visit or work, he lived with Mathiases. The kids treated him as a rock star, racing to tackle him as he walked through the door. He calls every birthday and Christmas. Email and Facebook enable constant communication.
After Savion went on Cornell — he’s now an IT headhunter in California — the Mathiases tried to adjust to not having a high school student in the house. (Helping him move to college, and visiting him regularly, proved to be great practice for when the Mathiases own kids are that age, Mark noted.)
In 2010, ABC asked if the Mathiases would again be a host family. They asked Savion what he thought. “Being part of your family was the highlight of my experience with ABC,” he said. The Mathiases were thrilled.
Their closeness with Savion made them concerned about replicating the experience — until they met Khaliq.
“We realized he would be a wonderful addition to our family too,” Kim says. “What a testament to ABC that they find such fine young men.”
Like Savion, Khaliq is strongly motivated.
“I attended one of the best middle schools in Georgia. I could probably go to one of the best high schools in Georgia too,” he told friends of the Mathiases.
“But when you realize that Georgia’s education system ranks 47th in the nation you think ‘big deal, my best-ranked school is still in a school system that’s 47th in the US. That’s when I thought maybe I should look elsewhere for my education.”
Kim says, “That’s impressive thinking at any age. It’s really impressive when you consider Khaliq was 13 years old.”
Khaliq’s academic transition to Westport was smooth. As a freshman he dropped his free period, to add Algebra 2.
By sophomore year Khaliq knew everyone, and everyone knew him. He was in a variety of clubs, played volleyball and had an active social life.
This year, as a junior, Khaliq is a leader in student government and other school and extracurricular activities, while juggling what many would finding a crushing load of AP classes. Through it all, Kim says, “Khaliq maintains his balance, his cool, and his warm smile.”
The Mathiases’ journey with Khaliq continues to unfold. Nicole and Nick both call him their brother – sometimes still confounding classmates.
But there’s no confusion among the Mathiases, or anyone at ABC House. They know there are many ways to be a family.
(And many ways to be a host family — including substitutes, when the regular host family is away. ABC House is always on the lookout for more volunteers. For information, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.)