Being a Kinship mentor has been an adventure that has brought much joy to David Niemela's life over the past nine years.
"Sometimes it's hard to tell who's impacting who more," he said. "It really goes both ways. I definitely totally recommend being a Kinship mentor. There's so much to learn and grow into. If you are sincere and put for the effort, you will undoubtedly enjoy multiple blessings! "I have had joy in my heart because of Brennen and watching him grow."
Niemela became Brennen Garwood's mentor in 2009 when he was eight years old and his grandmother Ina signed him up for the program.
Garwood, now 17 and a junior at Park Rapids High School, said that having Niemela for a mentor has been a big influence on his life.
"When we first met it was a pretty instant friendship," he said. "I remember I was excited to meet him and show him my room. He's really shown me a lot of places. Going to Fargo to Space Aliens was one of my favorites. When I was younger it was a lot of outdoor stuff, too, like fishing, hiking and biking. He was always thinking of new ways to hang."
Garwood said making it to the top of the Deep Portage fire observation tower was another memorable yet scary memory.
"I was afraid of heights and had never thought of doing anything like that, but we made it to the top together," he said.
Whether going on outings, playing video games or building lego sets, they got together every week when Garwood was younger. Now that he is older and busy with school, basketball and work it's every other week. They also stay in touch by texting and on Facebook.
"He has definitely been a role model for me," Garwood said. "I've learned important stuff from him about my life and what path I should stay on and what I should stay away from. I think of him as a close friend, someone I can talk to. He goes to my home basketball games whenever he gets the chance."
Niemela said it is hard to pick a favorite memory because there are so many. A camera captured many of them, with the two taking turns taking the pictures.
"With the length of our friendship, I've had innumerable memorable times each year," he said. "Once we truly bonded, our friendship just took off like a rocket. In the next few years, I saw our bond grow deeper and deeper, and by 2011 it was phenomenal! I loved being with Brennen and never really ran out of ideas for things to do. There were some school projects I helped him with, too. We spent a bunch of times going to Bemidji to watch a movie, eat tacos, and sometimes visiting the science center. Then over the years we continued to bond more and more, doing some new things as well as our traditional favorites."
Building things together was another activity they enjoyed over the years.
"I'm a crafter that likes to build and paint scale model houses," Niemela said. "We built one together for him and I recently built one for his nightstand. For his birthday in 2016, I built a computer desk for him, and he helped me by doing what he could."
In 2013, Garwood joined the Park Rapids basketball team as a seventh grader.
"I've watched and filmed most of his games," Niemela said. "I really started to see him grow as person and into a fine young man. He is a very bright, cool, and awesome buddy."
"I truly treasure him," Niemela said. "I grew as a person and friend, too. I realized early on that I wanted to be the best friend that I can be and just put forth honest effort into doing so. Investing in a young person's life is richly rewarding, and the biggest benefits are for the mentor. Like the Rod Stewart song, being a mentor keeps me forever young! Sometimes it is hard to tell who's impacting who more! It really goes both ways."
Niemela said that Garwood's grandma Ina has also been phenomenal to get to know and work with.
"She has been a tremendous help, always supportive and letting me lead our friendship."
Niemela said that he hopes their friendship will continue once he graduates from high school.
"I plan to stay in touch with him for sure," he said.
Garwood said he plans to stay in touch as well.
"I hope more people will consider being a mentor," he said." It's important to a kid to know someone is there for them and believes in them. It gives them hope and faith and pushes them to be all they can be."
When he was in Middle School, Garwood said he procrastinated on homework. "Now I get stuff done," he said. "I am planning to go to a nice college where I can play basketball."