Mark and Sue Keaton are the kind of people any child would love. They keep promises. They plan outings to movies, theme parks and baseball games.
And four years ago, they let then-5-year-old EJ know they would always be there. Expected parental behavior, but the Keatons aren't EJ's flesh and blood. They're his mentors.
"We go on adventures and have fun," said Sue Keaton, a 50-year-old executive assistant in banking. "EJ lives with his mom and grandmother. Here he sees how a couple loves and treats each other."
While EJ, now 9, lives in Largo and has a loving family, he has no dad in his life.
"I was shaving," said Mark Keaton, a 53-year-old retired computer programmer. "EJ stood watching. I saw he thought it was cool. So I held the electric razor to his face, to feel it. A simple example, but something every boy should see."
When the Keatons, St. Petersburg natives, signed up for the Adults Mentoring Children program at Gulf Coast Community Care, they committed to seeing EJ every Saturday. But they often spend more time with him.
Susan Ryan, the program's outreach coordinator, sees daily how mentoring changes lives.
"It's rewarding and a wonderful volunteer opportunity for people who want to pass on their special skills and talents to the next generation," she said. "Both adults and children benefit."
EJ is among nearly 200 children ages 3 to 18 throughout Pinellas County who were mentored through the program between October 2009 and now.
Sometimes it goes beyond basic mentoring.
The Keatons have even grown close to EJ's family. When EJ floundered in school, his mother asked for help. Mark tutored EJ in math and spelling and helped teach him about the responsibility of getting homework done.
And while the Keatons invest time and energy into helping raise EJ, they quickly acknowledge the joy they've received in return.
"I never had children of my own," Sue Keaton said. "But Mark and I taught EJ to ride a bike, saw him catch his first fish and win a second-place trophy. We've been there the first day of school. His mom's allowed us to become an intricate part of EJ's life."
And they don't take that charge lightly.
"Like most kids, he tries to play us," she said. "We say if you ask Mrs. Sue something after Mr. Mark's given you a no, you're never going to get to do what you want. We follow through. We're consistent."
Maria Arruda, a health care finance specialist who lives in Palm Harbor, knows the importance of having someone there — or not.
As a teen uprooted from Portugal, she felt like an outsider in an American high school.
"I had firsthand knowledge of what it feels like to be different," said Arruda, 44. "I was 15 and didn't know the language. That was a barrier. Dumped into high school in a foreign country, you can imagine the difficulties."
At first, Arruda was unsure she had what it took to mentor Brianna, then a tween. Both came from large families and because of that, Arruda knew one-on-one time was rare.
But it was Brianna's coming from a biracial family and struggling with being different that motivated Arruda. On a Dunedin Causeway stroll, Arruda tapped into her feelings from years ago and shared them with Brianna, who lives in Clearwater. The two clicked and the relationship evolved over time.
"I wanted her to know it's okay to be different," Arruda said, "that it's okay to look at the world differently. I was different and very early on I knew it."
Now 15, Brianna has spent one day a week with Arruda for the past three years. Often more.
"Brianna has taught me patience, how to love unconditionally," Arruda said.
"I've started volunteering with her, teaching her to give back. We participated in the Great American Cleanup day in Clearwater. We go to the theater, horseback ride, attend musicals, the theater and garden. Brianna is sweet-natured and loving."
Funding for Adults Mentoring Children is through the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, and mentors receive training.
"Mentoring can expose children to a lifestyle they don't know exists," Arruda said. "To the arts, different styles of music and to opportunities children otherwise might never experience."