Reflections on Essie and Jessica by Justin Cook

Communities In Schools of North Carolina is excited to kick off a year-long video series called “Overcoming Obstacles: CIS Success Stories” with a first piece on mentoring, celebrating January 2011 as the 10th Annual National Mentoring Month.

Our first video takes place in Wilkesboro, NC. Dr. Essie Hayes has mentored Jessica Mitchell since she was in the second grade after she transferred to C.C. Wright Elementary in Wilkes County. “Miss Essie” connected with Jessica through the CIS of Wilkes County’s Lunch Buddy program. They have been friends ever since. Jessica is now 18 years old, a bright senior at West Wilkes High School, and just as CIS sets out to ensure, will graduate this year. Communities In Schools programs such as Lunch Buddies and Friends of Youth have encouraged a life-long friendship between her and “Miss Essie” that continues to grow.

While Essie was certainly the mentor in this dynamic duo, it is apparent that sometimes the student becomes the mentor. “In all my years, I was never able to catch a fish,” explained Essie. “Even when the stream had been stocked with fish I never got a nibble. The Friends of Youth had a fishing trip and Jessica taught me how to fish. That was the first and only fish I ever caught,” she exclaimed “I had to help her reel it in,” said Jessica with a laugh, who has fished regularly throughout her life, even on the Outer Banks.

I was inspired by the depth of Essie and Jessica’s friendship. Essie glowed as she recounted watching Jessica grow up, and Jessica beamed as she talked about her adventures and learning experiences with Miss Essie. Jessica is very fortunate and comes from a nurturing home, and her needs were not as dire as other young people needing a mentor. However, she was much shyer as a child, and though intelligent, she struggled with English. That is where Miss Essie came in. She gave her the extra push that she needed to succeed in becoming an A student. Most of all she fulfilled the basic need for companionship that all people desire. “It’s hard for me to know what I did for Jessica because I’ve felt all along she is giving me just as much as I am giving her. And I am just as serious about that as can be,” said Essie. Essie has grandchildren that she doesn’t see often. “She is like a granddaughter to me,” she says.

In the spirit of National Mentoring Month, you too can help someone else feel like they belong through Communities In Schools. Help give that one-on-one relationship with a caring adult that every child needs.


Justin Cook is an independent documentary photographer who lives in Durham, NC. He is the multimedia producer behind Communities In Schools of North Carolina’s “Overcoming Obstacles: CIS Success Stories.” His work has been honored by College Photographer of the Year, Pictures of the Year International, Virginia Press Association, Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations. Although Cook’s photojournalism is award-winning, he gauges his success not in trophies but in the relationships he establishes with his subjects. View his work online at

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. Your email will not be displayed or shared