"Mentoring should be transformational," says Henry Wash, "like a metamorphosis."
It certainly has been for Wash, who runs the nonprofit High Aspirations, a mentorship program that focuses on African American males between 8 and 18 years of age.
Wash has benefitted from two of Kansas City's most generous mentors, who passed down lessons he still uses in his work.
High Aspirations used to meet at libraries and churches, but last month the organization moved into its own dedicated space on the corner of East 27th and Charlotte Street. Wash says the center could enable a four-fold increase in the number of young people served.
"I must give credit to Mr. Bloch," Wash says, referring to Henry Bloch, the philanthropist and co-founder of the tax preparation company H&R Block. Bloch died in April at the age of 96.
"He saw me as an entrepreneurial guy," Wash says, "but he said it was a social entrepreneurism."
It took a while for Wash to see himself the same way. Abandoned by his mother when he was 3 months old, Wash grew up in foster care and was disregarded at school.
"I had a teacher who stuffed me up under the desk and told me I couldn't learn," he says.
Others saw potential.
The first was Thurman Mitchell, a minister, former KCTV5 reporter and former police officer in Wichita. Wash was working at the Happy Foods grocery store at 31st Street and Norton Avenue when, he says, Mitchell urged him to find more meaningful work.
"I didn't really understand what a mentor was until Thurman kind of introduced me to that concept," Wash says, "so when he passed away (in 2000), it's almost like Henry (Bloch), you know, he took it to another level."
Wash first met Bloch in 2001. That year, he received a scholarship (awarded in honor of Bloch's retirement) which would have covered his tuition at Metropolitan Community College. Wash wanted out of it, but Bloch convinced him otherwise.
"He asked me, 'What did I want to do?' I said, 'I just want to help people.' He said, 'I want to help you help people.'"
Wash accepted the scholarship and went on to get a master's degree from the Bloch School of Management at UMKC. In the years that followed, the unlikely pair spent a lot of time together. Over pizza at Spin! or burgers at Winstead's, the two would meet and talk about life and love and work.
"He taught me a lot of things that I just wouldn't have known ... and he helped me understand some things that I should have known, that I didn't really understand," says Wash. "When I look at a Mr. Bloch, he was different because he came to my house — he went to 25th and Cleveland. A lot of guys of his stature wouldn't have done that. He also went to my wedding off of 35th and Chelsea."
In 2004, at Bloch's urging, Wash founded High Aspirations. The organization now serves 70 kids.
"One of the leading factors as far as why these young men weren't thriving in society was the lack of a strong support person," he says, focusing in on the story of one young man who was at risk of expulsion after bringing a BB gun to school.
"We spent a lot of time together. I did the same thing Henry did for me — I kind of explained to him what life was, what love was, and his fiduciary duty to serving others," says Wash.
The young man will graduate this year and plans to attend college. It's a success that the nonprofit's new digs could make more frequent. The center includes space for the boys to do homework, receive counseling and play chess.
"It's one of the biggest games you can ever play, period, worldwide, that everyone can play on a level playing field," he says, "and so they play chess with the idea that they can really, really thrive in society and be even better."
A critical piece of the program will include community service. Wash wants to start a free lawnmowing service for people in the neighborhood who can't cut their own grass.
It's an idea Bloch encouraged over pizza on one of their many lunchtime mentoring sessions, says Wash.
"He would expect for me to do what I'm doing now, to carry on the message and to continue to work with high aspirations."