Walking the Talk: Adventures in Mentoring with Tina and Rodney Culbreath

Updated: Sep 27

Adventures in Learning Podcast, Season 1, Episode 9

Host: Dr Diane Jackson Schnoor

Guests: Tina Stevens Culbreath and Rodney Culbreath

For today's show notes for the Adventures in Learning podcast, meet two dear friends who walk the walk when it comes to mentoring and passing on life lessons gleaned from their own personal journeys. Rodney Culbreath and Tina Stevens Culbreath are the founders of the I'm Just Me Movement in Winchester, Virginia. In this episode we focus on I'm Just Me and its messaging, the importance of mentoring in changing lives, and how to use playful learning to really make a difference in children's lives. And, of course, there are many picture book recommendations connected to mentoring, character building activities, and social emotional learning. If you want to know more about the I'm Just Me Movement or any of the projects highlighted below, please email Tina@ImJustMeMovement.Org.

What Is the I'm Just Me Movement?

[01:18] Tina: I'm Just Me is a non profit organization. We provide innovative mentoring programs through our workshops, our Live Life Forward programs, intervention groups, bullying and diversity workshops. We provide individual and group mentoring, mobile resource centers, job readiness. And our mission is to strengthen youth, families, and communities through mentorship, education, training, and community collaboration.


"We both got into this kind of work for similar reasons, mostly because we are individuals that grew up in some pretty rough times as children. And along the way we learned that we could share and be vulnerable and that we were not our environmental factors, but our own hopes, dreams, and aspirations. And now we're able to do that through our mission and the organization that we started." ---Tina Stevens Culbreath [02:06]
Why mentoring? How does it make an impact?

At [03:30], Tina and Rodney share about the origins of the I'm Just Me Movement, which started in 2013 when their son shared his own learning challenges and the things that had been tough for him. His experiences inspired the three of them to go into schools to talk about bullying, the effects of bullying, and how our words can hurt. "We came across a young girl that came up after one of our bullying prevention programs and said, I don't care about bullying, no one cares about me," Tina remembers. "And she had a personal conversation with me about it. I could then look her in her eyes and let her know that I too had a hard start, but that she could write her own ending to her story. So we went to the drawing board and we created a mentor program so that we can help all people really reach the best version of who they are by building the skills to do so."


Within the mentorship program, Tina and Rodney work to match the students with a trusted adult, who is vetted, trained, and supported as they build a consistent relationship with their mentee. "Once that match is made, they make that connection, they find the different things that they have in common," Rodney says. "Sometimes different things can draw them. Sometimes a child might be drawn int because somebody reminds them of their grandparents or something. A younger mentor could be like an older brother. In a sense, it’s just making the connection to find a way that we can bring these young people into their purpose, into their meaning."


[06:35] Dr Diane: So once you make that connection between your mentor and your mentee, how often do they meet? What kinds of things do they do together? Do you all provide additional training for the mentors? How does that work?


[06:46] Tina: Great question. So I'll start by saying that we have a non clinical approach to what we do and because they need time and they need some space to kind of process through their emotions and thoughts outside of the four walls that a therapeutic or a clinical approach would have.


We go on walks. We do things out in the community to help their social skill building. What we do is pretty unique in the sense that we're very creative and we meet the students where they are with their strengths. So if a student mentions that they really have a knack for reading or they have a knack for playing an instrument or whatever those things are, we really connect them to their strength. We build on those, and we really give them the time and space to share at their pace.


I will also say that, yes, we do provide additional training for our mentors. So we do provide a mentor training, and we also have a trauma training as well. And we do provide and connect them to different resources that we've partnered with, with the Warren Coalition, which provides a trauma training and such.


The relationship with a young person and a mentor is so critical. One in three kids grow up without a positive role model in their lives. And these young kiddos are really in need of support, and mentors come in all sizes, all ages, all abilities, and all interests. -- Tina Stevens Culbreath

To learn more about mentoring opportunities or to fill out a mentoring application, visit imjustmemovement.org. All mentors must complete and pass a background check before they are paired with a mentee.

How do mentors change lives? Rodney and Tina share their personal stories.

[11:42] Rodney: The first time I ever got a mentor was a white male. So there was no background that we actually kind of shared, but the thing that he really taught me the most is I could think outside the box. And then his compassion, because it didn't matter where he came from, where his privilege was, he wanted to show me that I can live in this privileged life, this world. And I remember one time what he showed me was a picture frame of cows, nothing but cows in a field. And we're standing in the shopping center when he showed me this picture. And he said, what would I put in that picture if all that land was mine? And I could only name things that I knew, things that I just knew in my environment. But he told me, Rodney, this is actually the shopping center. That field is this shopping center. You can put anything you want and always be open to anything that's out there. You don't have to be closed in just in your world alone. But showing me that I can dream and there's possibilities and things out there. So that's one thing that really inspired me to really want to do this, because it didn't matter what the background is -- and we work with so many different types of students -- what we can provide is purpose and give them some meaning behind those purposes and things that they want to do, and be that support for them.


[13:27] Tina: I had a teacher, I was 15 years old, found myself pregnant and not knowing what to do. At that time, I had up to that point, I learned that you don't tell your family secrets. You don't tell what goes on. This house stays in this house. But at that point I said, okay, I'm 15, I'm pregnant. In six months, or whatever, I'm not going to be able to hold the secret. So I confided in a teacher. And before I confided in her, she knew something was going on when I showed up that morning and she said, are you having a bad day? Tell me what's going on. And I said, I don't think you want to know what's going on. And she assured me that whatever it was, she wouldn't judge me and that she was there to help. At that moment, I felt a sense of relief because up to that point, I didn't tell things that were going on. So I trusted her and I shared with her that I was 15 and pregnant and scared and not sure what I would be doing about being able to focus on the goals that I had, one of which was graduation. And I just could not see how these things could be possible for me, because where I grew up, 15 and pregnant meant that you would drop out of school, that you would rely on government assistance, that you would make choices that would not be healthy for your child, and then there would be cycles of those things. So that was what I came to the table with this conversation. And what she showed me was, although I was 15 and pregnant, that I still had value and I had worth. And those goals and dreams that I wanted to do were still possible. And not only were they possible, but that she would be there with me and for me to help make it happen. And she lived up to her word. I did graduate on time. I actually made it to college and she helped me get into college and the rest I can say is history because she saw something in me that I did not see in myself. I was able to still achieve those things that I always wanted to do.


[18:27] Celebrating 9 Years of the I'm Just Me Movement

October is the nationally recognized I'm Just Me Because National Month that encourages people to go beyond simple tolerance to embrace our individual traits that make us unique and to accept people for who they are. As part of this month, schools often create bulletin boards and letting their students share what makes them unique and what helps them tap into those great qualities. On October 2, Tina says I'm Just Me will have a bowling birthday bash for supporters in the Shenandoah Valley. There's also a ribbon cutting at 11:30 am on October 13 at their new offices at 411 N. Cameron Street in Winchester, VA, to which the public is invited.


[20:40] Dr Diane: So I know with the mentorship programs, those are geared more towards middle and high school students, but you guys have worked also with the younger crowd doing Character Counts kinds of activities. What sort of things go into those workshops, what are your goals for those and what do you hope to achieve? And how could a teacher who might be listening be able to use that during I'm Just Me Month?


At [21:04], Rodney explains that Character Counts is successful because the very young students learn and practice kindness, patience, respect, and friendship. "The whole thing is based on how do we make friends, what would be the first steps to making a friend? And once you have that friend, how do you keep friends? So we talk about those different types of things like that in our character counts," Rodney says. "And I think that teaching that young will get kids to understand the value of each other and themselves because they get to embrace their diversity, they get to know what that inclusion is and what it looks like, what it feels like and understand that."


[24:13] Dr Diane: So what I'm hearing as you're talking is kindness is a verb and it's an action that can make a difference. And that as we're learning these things about ourselves, we're also learning to appreciate other people. And it sounds like you're helping the kids really zero in on being seen themselves, but also seeing others and really recognizing who they are.


[24:39] Tina: Absolutely. Inclusion, diversity, community, citizenship, do you make your home, your school and community better? Do you cooperate with others? Are you a good neighbor? And as Rodney was, sharing, each of the kids creates about four kindness cards. And then we go out into the community to make someone's day. We know that when kids and people feel good about who they are, they can pass those on to their peers that are watching. They can teach adults a couple of things or two. It's really important for kids to learn the character traits and positive character traits earlier on. And I think kindness never hurts. We need to always be a little more kindness, patience, self awareness, having people have some knowledge of their own character, their feelings, their motives, their desires, their abilities to tune into their feelings and thoughts and actions. I think that when they can have some self awareness, they can recognize their strengths and their challenges too.


What is Project Positive and how can teachers and families use it to cultivate inclusive learning environments?

Tina notes that Project Positive is an initiative that was created by students in collaboration with I'm Just Me Movement to cultivate kind and inclusive learning environments. The website has examples of ways young people can positively impact their schools and learning environments, as well as ways to incorporate the project into schools.


*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. I support Bookshop.org because your purchases help benefit your local independent book dealers.


Picture Book Connections for Project Positive, Character Counts, Social-Emotional Learning and STEM/STEAM Learning

I can't resist a good children's picture book. While talking with Tina and Rodney, I found myself thinking about the wonderful array of diverse picture books that would pair beautifully with Project Positive and with the mentoring activities of I'm Just Me. This list is not exhaustive, but it's a good start for parents, teachers, librarians, and mentors to think about:

  • Matt de la Pena and Corinna Luyken just published a book called Patchwork,which is a beautiful story about figuring out who you are -- and knowing that how people see you as as a child (and how you see yourself) isn't necessarily who you grow up to be. It's about being in touch with your gifts and having those supports to be able to grow up to be whoever you want. Matt de la Pena and Loren Long also wrote Love, which is just a beautiful book about the many different ways that love manifests in our lives.

  • Another one I really love is All Because You Matter, which is by Tami Charles and Bryan Collier. It's a gorgeous book, and it's really connects to the idea of the I'm Just Me Movement -- who am I and why do I matter? There's also You Matter by Christian Robinson, I Am Enough by Grace Byers and Keturah A. Bobo, and Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera and Lauren Castillo, which also touch on those same ideas and themes in beautiful ways.

  • For mentoring, there's a book called Drawn Together (Minh Le and Dan Santat), which is about a grandfather and a child from totally different places. There are language barriers. There are generational barriers. Yet they find commonality through drawing. And it's a beautiful book. The illustrations are gorgeous.

  • Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton created Brave Every Day and The Invisible Boy, which are perfect companions for character building and developing empathy, compassion, and bravery. Brave Every Day is about overcoming anxiety and The Invisible Boy is about being seen and how the act of kindness helps a child who's invisible slowly become visible to other children within the classroom environment.

  • The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael Lopez is about feeling uncomfortable coming into a situation. The lyrical verse and vibrant illustrations demonstrate how kindness and empathy can really help someone become part of the group while recognizing and celebrating differences.

  • Another book I was thinking about is After the Fall by Dan Santat. It's where Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall and how he suffers from post traumatic stress after the fact and has to put himself back together and find ways to heal and become a whole egg again. And there's a special surprise metamorphosis at the end. It connects so beautifully to the work of the I'm Just Me programs.

  • Other books that connect beautifully to the mission of the I'm Just Me Movement include I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James; Dreamers by Yuyi Morales; We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell and Frane Lessac; The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson; and Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. I definitely encourage you to check these titles out and add your own to the list.

*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. I support Bookshop.org because your purchases help benefit your local independent book dealers.


Programs Currently Offered Through I'm Just Me Movement

I'm Just Me Workshop, customized to meet an organization's specific goals, schedules, and needs, and focused on 4 foundational elements:

  • Self Acceptance

  • Positive Peer Pressure

  • Breaking Through Roadblocks and Overcoming Obstacles

  • Youth Wellness & Mental Health


Live Life Forward Program LLF engages youth involved in the juvenile court system to establish a program of change in the young person's life. It is focused on helping address stigmas and stereotypes, goal-setting, self-discipline, and skill development that improves the young person's sense of hopefulness. Mentors and youth work one-on-one and are also offered opportunities to participate in groups. ​ Intervention Group Sessions IGS focuses on students who are chronically absent suspended from middle and high schools to rekindle the commitment to learning and being successful in the classroom. IGS includes one-on-one mentoring and group activities. The program is preventive based and ends with a graduation. ​ Positive Diversity and Anti-Bullying Workshops Positive Diversity Workshops are a way to develop student readiness to work in teams, live together, interact, and develop leadership skills. When students understand and appreciate their own diversity of styles and preferences for communicating and behaving in a group environment, their capacity for both leadership and teamwork grows. Bullying programs can be also be customized to include workshops and mentoring that reach students and address the problems of bullying, stigmas, stereotypes and low self-esteem. ​ On-going Individual & Group Mentoring Youth are matched with a caring mentor who is trained to focus on providing soft skills, positive reinforcement, trust-building, and the achievement of goals

*Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. I support Bookshop.org because your purchases help benefit your local independent book dealers.



Listen to the episode here.



Please visit www.drdianeadventures.com to learn more about how I help early childhood and elementary educators and librarians build connections between STEAM and multicultural picture books for engaged learning. Now booking keynotes, conference presentations, and professional development workshops for the 2022-23 school year.

If you are seeking ways to spice up your curriculum, build connections with engaged STEAM learners, and introduce diverse versions of fairy tales and folk literature -- ALL FROM THE COMFORT OF YOUR OWN HOME -- check out out my on-demand virtual course, Beyond Ever After, created in partnership with Steve Spangler Inc. In September, we are running a back to school special: Enter DRDIANEPODCAST10 and get $10 off the price of a Beyond Ever After video course.
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