Omaha man’s service to youth continues in retirement

His wife had been urging him for years: Try volunteering for TeamMates, the youth mentoring program she helps coordinate in Catholic schools.
But Mike Monaghan of Sacred Heart Parish in Omaha never found enough time, until he retired at the end of 2016 after 42 years of teaching in Catholic and public schools, juvenile detention centers and treatment facilities.
“When I retired, she said, ‘we can get you in someplace,” Monaghan said. “I said, ‘I’d like Sacred Heart (School).’”
That’s where he started last school year with Dontrelle, now a sixth-grader at Jesuit Academy in Omaha. He and Monaghan continue to meet once a week at the academy for about 20 minutes. Sometimes they play cards, other times chess. Sometimes they share a few words, other times not. 
Words aren’t the point, Monaghan said. Consistently being there, showing he cares, is what Dontrelle needs, and that’s what TeamMates is all about.
“You can lecture children or youth, and their eyes kind of glaze over,” Monaghan said. “If they see your actions, that speaks a lot louder than words. I’m making a commitment to a youth’s life, to help him as much as I can, without being pushy.”
Former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne and his wife, Nancy, founded TeamMates in 1991. It has grown from 22 football players meeting with students in Lincoln Public Schools to more than 150 chapters serving more than 8,400 youth in public and private schools, mostly in Nebraska and Iowa but also Kansas and Wyoming.
Jennifer Bettger, a member of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Omaha and TeamMates coordinator for Omaha-area Catholic schools, said Monaghan has joined 130 mentors in 19 of these schools.
Mentors must be 18 or older with a high school degree. They are not counselors. Their focus is providing any youth who wants to be part of the program the support and safety they need, Bettger said. In addition to youths volunteering themselves for a TeamMates match, parents, teachers or others in the community can recommend youths who might benefit from such visits. 
Mentors and students meet only in schools, during school hours, up to an hour each week, except for a spring visit as a large group to Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha.
Volunteers are encouraged to stay with their students through high school. Six years ago, TeamMates began urging that the contact remain through college, Bettger said. 
“Longevity is definitely our goal,” she said. 
The visits foster stability and hope, TeamMates officials say, with students in the program often maintaining or improving their grades, attendance and behavior.
Dontrelle and Monaghan, 71, meet each Wednesday. During a recent visit, Dontrelle defeated Monaghan handily at the card game UNO. 
“It’s fun,” Dontrelle said of visiting each week with Monaghan. “I can talk to somebody when I need to.”
Monaghan said he knows as much about Dontrelle as he is willing to share. 
“There are things I kind of leave up to Dontrelle,” he said. “If I ask a question and I get a simple answer back, I figure ‘OK, we don’t want to talk about that.’ I’m there if he wants to talk. If all he wants to do is play UNO, that’s fine with me.”
In a similarly quiet way, Monaghan’s faith plays a role in why he serves, and the manner in which he does it.
“My mother was always sending novena cards to people,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK, if she wants to do that.’ It didn’t bother me. It’s just not me. I’m a lot quieter in my approach to it.”
Monaghan said his wife, Peg, who is a school counselor in several Omaha-area Catholic elementary schools and an assistant coordinator for TeamMates, insists his faith got him into mentoring. 
‘“You thought the youth were worth the effort,’” he recalls her telling him at one point. ‘“You had a positive approach. These kids are worth it.’”
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