Mom finds mentors for son, becomes a mentor herself


Dimitri Culpepper is a lucky 16-year-old. He is well-prepared for both school and life success. His mother, LaWanda Spears, has made sure of that.

“It takes a village to raise a kid, and each person in that village plays a different role,” said Spears, who has spent 16 years tirelessly building the village that now surrounds her son.

“I waited until I was in my thirties to have a baby, and I decided from the start that my son was not going to be a statistic. My son comes first, and my early retirement gift will be his success and happiness,” added Spears.

Spears was raised by her grandmother after the early death of her mother from alcoholism. She never knew her father. Her family was very poor, living on welfare and knowing the unhappiness of slack slum landlords and basic needs left unmet.

Spears learned early on that the key to breaking the poverty cycle was a good education that leads to viable employment. She worked hard to build her own career and today celebrates more than 20 years as an employee of General Mills. Knowing how important it is for Dimitri to stay in school, she works every angle she can think of to keep her son “busy learning, but having fun.”

Thanks to Spears’ resourcefulness, Dimitri was chosen by The Pohlad Foundation to be sponsored at a summer leadership camp four years in a row. At camp, Dimitri learned the importance of working hard in school and making good choices, but he also learned about exciting hobbies such as deer hunting, horsemanship, canoeing, and other activities that many children are never exposed to. All play a part in expanding his world.

“I don’t want him to be bored, and I don’t give him time to get in trouble,” said Spears.

When Dimitri was five years old, Spears decided he needed a male role model. She knew that as a single mother, there were things she could never teach him. She reached out to Kinship of Greater Minneapolis because they work with kids as young as five and have a family mentoring program. Dimitri was matched with the Brush family (Scott, Nicole and their three children) and Spears was thrilled. She believed that exposure to a traditional family would further educate and empower her son.

Today, 11 years later, the two families remain friends and get together at least once a month and often on holidays. The Brush family was the first part of the village Spears continues to build for her child.

As Dimitri got older, Spears decided that it would be good for him to have an African American man in his life. Over the next 10 years, she succeeded in finding not one but four different men who now spend time with Dimitri and who serve different roles in his life.

While his mentor Lamond Smith teaches Dimitri about business and golf, Darren Harmon, finance director at General Mills, plays an academic role, helping Dimitri with school projects, taking him to plays with important life messages, and playing basketball with him to keep in shape.

Dimitri attends school at Breck, and despite the sacrifice private school requires from Spears, she remains 100 percent committed to her son and to the dream she has for his eventual life success. She has no regrets about the sacrifices she makes as a mother.

Recently, as Dimitri grew older and more independent, Spears decided it was time for her to give back to the community. She had met a six-year-old girl through a friend of her son and took a special interest in becoming part of this child’s life. After approaching the girl’s mother and getting the OK, she and her young friend, November, contacted Kinship of Greater Minneapolis and were formally matched.

Spears and November have been getting together once each week for the past year, and Spears is thrilled to be able to give November the experiences she never had as a child.

“If I can give back to November what our mentors gave to Dimitri, I will be fulfilled,” Spears shared.

“There are a lot of firsts with November and whether we are cooking, braiding our hair, doing crafts, or seeing movies, I love my time with her! I never got to do these things as a kid or as the mother of a boy. It is so much fun to be girly,” Spears added.

Occasionally, Spears needs reenergizing. All moms do. Her secret to finding the strength to carry on with joy is a Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley song called “Thanks for My Child.” Spears and Dimitri have shared the song since he was a young boy; here are the ending lyrics to the song:

“I carried you for nine months, and I’m going to carry you until you can carry yourself all on your own. I love you, Baby.”

“I love you too, Mommy.”


To learn more about mentoring a child in your community, call Kinship of Greater Minneapolis at 612-588-4655.

Nancy Torrison is director of community relations with the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, home of the Kinship of Greater Minneapolis mentoring program.