REDMOND — Julie and Vincent Iiyambo frantically pushed their plastic spatulas forward, trying to keep their runny egg mixture from falling off the griddle as it started to cook.
In a dance to share space in the kids’ Redmond apartment, Harvey Trager, 63, helped Julie, Vincent and their brother Sem make breakfast. The three alternated cracking eggs on the side of the sink, flipping bacon spread thick across the griddle, and unloading doughy canned biscuits onto a baking sheet.
Amid the shuffle, Trager asked the kids about their classes.
Vincent was writing a report about the Blackfeet Nation for his fifth-grade class. Julie, a third-grader, didn’t yet know how she did on her math test. Sem admitted he’s still trying to figure out proportions.
“If I make a cake with two cups of flour and a quarter-cup of sugar,” Trager asked the seventh-grader, “Is that proportional?”
Sem shook his head no.
The Iiyambo family and Trager were connected through the Youth Eastside Services Success Mentoring Program, which pairs adults with students in the Bellevue and Lake Washington school districts. The program is ideal for kids from single-parent households, or those who need academic support.
Esther Iiyambo, a single mother of four, enrolled her son Sem in the program because she was worried she alone couldn’t give him the support he needed.
Sem was shy. He often looked to his younger brother Vincent to help answer questions directed to him.
Esther Iiyambo felt he needed a male role model and someone who could dedicate time to work with him on his homework.
At first that’s exactly what Trager and Sem did. They’d set up a tutoring station at the kitchen table and work through math equations and science projects. Trager would use a whiteboard to demonstrate the tougher exercises.
It was no different than the help Trager gave his own kids, Carly and Josh, now adults.
Trager gradually started getting the Iiyambo kids out of the house. They’d go on local hikes, play mini golf and go for pizza.
Before meeting him, their weekends typically consisted of video games and church, Iiyambo said. They hadn’t seen a waterfall or gone to the zoo.
“After a few months, I went from one to three,” Trager said. Now he mentors all of Iiyambo’s youngest kids. KJ, Iiyambo’s eldest son, is in 11th grade. He sometimes likes to tag along on adventures with Trager, too.
He’s really a father figure, Iiyambo said of Trager.
Youth Eastside Services (YES) provides mental health and substance use counseling, treatment services and other social support for parents and children in the region. It’s one of the 13 beneficiaries of The Seattle Times Fund for Those in Need.
The mentorship program currently has 14 mentor-mentee matches, according to YES staff. The kids range in age from 6 to 18 and many live in Bellevue, Kirkland and Issaquah. They meet with their mentors for two to four hours a week and receive academic support, like homework help, and opportunities to explore the area.
The program has a one-year minimum, but many pairs have been together for much longer. Some met while the child was in elementary school, and continued their relationship until the teen graduated.
Trager has been with the Iiyambo family since June 2019.
“A big blessing”
The weekend before Thanksgiving, Trager carried his electric griddle into the family’s home and helped with breakfast. After they loaded the dishwasher, they walked down the street to Redmond Town Center to play football.
Each weekend, the kids spend hours with Trager — they often cook, hike, play football or go swimming. If the weather is bad, they might go out for a movie, cook at home or play board games.
Typically, this is Iiyambo’s only down time.
Her alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. And she has her morning routine down to the minute: pray, shower, get dressed, make a cup of tea, and walk to the 4:30 a.m. bus.
She’s usually the last of her crew to head out the door, often a few hours late. On school nights, she’s prepping dinner by 3:30 p.m., the kids are eating by 6 p.m. and everyone is trickling into their bedrooms before 8 p.m.
On the weekends, Esther Iiyambo catches up on chores around the house and tries to also catch her breath.
“He is a big blessing,” she said of Trager.
She expected the mentor might just be someone who swings by for a few hours each week to help with homework, but Trager has become a part of the family.
“Dear Mr. Harvey!! Thank you for being there for us, Thank you for taking us to the park and play football & basketball. Thank you for teaching us how to cook,” a Father’s Day poster for Trager reads. “Thank you for guiding us, thank you for helping us with school assignments, Thank you for having patience when it was hard for us. We thank you for supporting us, encouraging us. Thank you for your love, laughter you have brought to our lives. We are forever grateful.”
Trager is a product manager for a Snohomish County-based company that designs and makes test tools for various industries. His employer moved him, his wife, Lisa, and their kids to the Pacific Northwest from Detroit three decades ago, and he’d long been looking for ways to give back to the community.
He toyed with the idea of building houses with Habitat for Humanity, among others, but nothing really piqued his interest.
Trager signed up for the mentorship program after attending a Youth Eastside Services event. There, a mother and child spoke about the relationship they’d built with their mentor, and how the support had changed their lives for the better.
Iiyambo came to the U.S. from Namibia as a high-schooler. Her parents were survivors of the Namibian War of Independence. She speaks 13 dialects and languages including English.
In her bedroom is a stack of diplomas and certificates. Among them are: Argosy University, Borough of Manhattan Community College, Bellevue College, Lake Washington Technical College.
She is a domestic violence survivor, and has had to start her life over from scratch to protect her kids. Before finding their Redmond home, they navigated two Eastside shelters and many hotel rooms.
“It was really rough,” she said. “But I never gave up.”
Now, she counts on Trager to help take some of the pressure off her and her kids.
Trager said Esther Iiyambo reminds him a bit of his own mother.
His parents, like Esther, were immigrants.
They were hiding in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe and were in a refugee camp before immigrating to the U.S. When Trager was growing up, they worked long hours, and didn’t speak much English. Trager’s father died when he was 12, and his mother continued working six days a week to support him and his three siblings.
Trager said being a part of the mentorship program and meeting the Iiyambo family has shown him just a glimpse into the challenges single parents face.
There are so many more out there, Esther Iiyambo said. And YES needs more mentors.
“There’s a Jewish phrase: tikkun olam,” Trager said. “That means making things better; making the world better. I feel like I’m – in a very small way – I’m helping improve things for a few people.”