Almost 10 years ago, Chloe Huston made a new friend in third grade.
Huston was 8 years old.
Marilyn Duve was 67.
On Thursdays, for perhaps an hour, they chatted over board games. At first their conversation stumbled into awkward pauses and stopped.
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But over the weeks, Huston revealed details of a life that the prim and proper Duve found hard to believe.
Neither expected that their relationship, which began through a school district mentoring program, would bond them as best friends for years to come.
Duve would help convince Huston — often homeless throughout her school years — to stay enrolled during moments when Huston pondered dropping out.
Huston would grow to consider Duve, who is not a relative, as “the most important family member in my life.”
“She represented everything to me,” Huston said recently, a few days after Duve watched her walk across the stage at the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence as a graduate of William Chrisman High School.
“She was a parent, a friend, someone I could confide in.”
And, as it turned out, someone Huston needed very much.
They met in the fall of 2005 at Mill Creek Elementary School in Independence.
Duve had visited the school office to request a mentor for a grandson she and her husband were rearing — then agreed to serve as one herself.
She wasn’t prepared for the revelations that followed.
Her first clue to Huston’s unstable home life came when the school secretary called to say: “Don’t come to school before calling first, because Chloe misses a lot of school.”
But after four to six weeks, Huston figured out Duve always came on Thursdays.
She never missed Thursdays after that.
At first, Duve assumed Huston enjoyed the things all young girls did. But that didn’t seem to be true.
Once, Huston mentioned she was going to have a birthday party.
Duve asked: What kind of cake are you going to have?
No answer came.
As the weeks passed, Huston described how her father was not in her life, how her mother often was not home, or how mom left Huston and her siblings with family friends for weeks or months at a time. Sometimes, Huston lacked food and running water.
“I was appalled,” Duve recalled recently. “I had no idea there were children living like she was living.”
They kept setting up their board games across a small table at the end of a school hallway.
At the end of that first academic year, Duve asked if Huston wanted her for her mentor the next year. Huston did.
By the fifth grade, Duve noticed Huston reacted to her arrival by watching the classroom door for her to appear.
As much as Duve wanted to help, her options were limited. The mentoring program, called YouthFriends, included strict guidelines as to how much contact mentors could have with students.
Duve could only meet with Huston at school. They couldn’t speak on the phone. They had to observe “side hugs,” in order to maintain an appropriate physical distance.
District officials sometimes approved small gifts for Huston. Duve found those at the dollar store. For Valentine’s Day, she bought Huston a small glass jar that could hold an admirer’s flower. For Christmas, she brought her an ornament.
For Huston’s 12th birthday, Duve bought her a new dress.
“I didn’t ask permission to do that,” Duve said.
At Bingham Middle School, Duve and Huston continued to bond over games, leaving Chutes and Ladders behind and moving on to the card game UNO. But her stress-filled home life affected her grades, Huston said.
“Homework was hard.
“I would go home and it would be constant fighting,” Huston said. “If I asked for help on homework, it would turn literally into a four-hour lecture and I would be up until 2 in the morning on a school night being nagged about every little thing.
“So I never asked for help with homework.”
But Huston didn’t want to quit school, which she considered a refuge.
“School was my safe place,” she said. “I had perfect attendance, always, even if I was sick.”
As Huston continued on to William Chrisman, her plight became clear to teachers and others. Several provided food, clothing or even shelter for brief periods, she said.
“In high school I had to find my own food to eat, find clothes for winter or summer, and it is very difficult to maintain happiness and motivation when you are supporting yourself.”
By her junior year, Huston lost her eligibility for free school meals, and her family could not pay. So Duve began bringing lunch: a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, with fruit or a piece of chocolate.
Huston wondered if there was any point in continuing with school.
“I talked and talked about this with my counselors and Marilyn, and they reminded me how important education is and how many great opportunities I could have. All I have ever wanted was a good, stable life, but without school it is kind of hard to do.”
Last month, Huston graduated.
For the ceremonies, Duve bought her another new dress.
Independence School District officials consider Duve and Huston’s relationship as a remarkable example of how students can benefit from mentoring programs.
Duve is one of approximately 2,000 volunteer adult mentors who have donated more than 700,000 hours to Independence district students over the past 20 years. This past school year, about 200 volunteers participated in the program, now called Inspire.
The program’s impact has been “incredible,” Superintendent Dale Herl said.
“In many cases, like that of Marilyn and Chloe, it gives our students an additional motivational piece to excel in school, knowing they have that extra support system,” Herl said.
“I couldn’t be more proud, learning this has been life-changing for both Chloe and Marilyn.”
This summer, Huston hopes to find a job so she can start saving for a car. She has received scholarship funds from the Inspire program. Although she is considering attending Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, this fall she plans to enroll at Penn Valley Community College.
That’s in part because she now lives with family friends whom she describes as “aunts,” and she wants to savor that stability.
She also looks forward to having Duve as a friend instead of a mentor. They no longer have to abide by the program’s limiting rules.
As they recently recounted their old days at Mill Creek, they laughingly re-enacted their side hug.
Today Huston, who recently turned 18, concedes they make an unusual pair.
“She’s very proper and very posh and she likes things to be clean and neat and organized,” she said.
“My life is everything but that.”
How to help
Anyone wanting information about the Inspire program at the Independence School District can call 816-521-5300.