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Saunders reaches for his own potential, while helping others find their own
James Saunders
Portal Middle High School senior James Saunders, 18, leads the weekly One Direction mentoring program he created. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

“Stay driving” and “hold the wheel” are two phrases James Saunders lives and seeks to instill in the 30 or so Portal Middle School boys who are participants in his One Direction mentorship program. Saunders helps keep them on the road to being the best versions of themselves possible and together they journey to the realization of their full potential as they daily move in only one direction — and that’s up.

One Direction is the fulfilment of a vision and mission Saunders embarked upon in winter of 2022 when he spoke with the assistant principal at Portal Middle High School about the need for a mentoring program for middle school males.

This suggestion was met with an enthusiastic response by the school administration and the program found itself beginning to take shape the following week. With the intention of helping middle school males in sixth through eighth grades who are struggling to find their direction make better decisions, become leaders, and find their voices and self-confidence as they become successful young men in an atmosphere of not being just peers, Saunders provides mentoring from the place of a high school senior, but also ensuring the group offers the unity and comradery of a surrogate family.

Lessons and activities include hygiene, money management, formal etiquette, self-esteem, goal setting and life skills, all while providing the positive role model every young man needs — and Saunders is just that.

In speaking with Saunders, he readily admits he was not the best student as a middle schooler and as such is particularly attuned to the needs of students at this stage of their development. He feels he can reach them on a personal and peer level through relaying his story and shared experiences.

Saunders’ journey of growth as a young man has seen him go from frequent bouts of in-school suspension and problems with authority between the ages of 13 and 14 to working half of each day in the high school front office as a sophomore and senior. He has served as founder and mentor with One Direction during the last two years.

When asked what the key to this remarkable transformation was, he attributed it to faith, recognizing and honoring the authority of a higher power. He also credits his  mother, grandparents, pastor and teachers with reinforcing the idea that there was so much more within him than he had shown so far. They saw this, and helped him discover and claim it.

Saunders found himself living the words he is so fond of saying to the young men he mentors: “Take your shame and make it your fame.”

Some of this mentoring occurs in a group setting the last period of the day and involves building a bond through exercises such as making butter, hygiene Bingo, and the sharing of personal stories. Other instances might be on a more individual basis, like in the hallway or over lunch by simply being present and listening to the concerns of those he mentors attentively. 

Positive reinforcement in consistent care, concern, recognition and praise is key according to Saunders with words such as, “I see you making an effort. The last two, three months have been good! Now let’s try for four!”  The encouragement is providing needed and monumental motivation to stay the course, uncover and claim one’s full potential.

Regardless of where the care and concern is exhibited, whether corporately or individually, Saunders repeatedly emphasizes that consistent presence and recognition are key to the program — and to the young men’s development. 

Showing these young men they have someone who, as a peer, sees the potential they possess, he sets the bar high, challenging them to discover and live in their truth, while he continues to show up and be there for them daily. These are integral components, Saunders says, to the success of One Direction.

Saunders feels that respect for self, others and authority results in helping individuals get the most out of any endeavor. He says, “You get what you give,” and his success is a testimony for all his peers to see, bringing more participants to the ranks of One Direction and its life-altering effects. It is a message that has found resonance and respect, and one he leans consistently into as a role model and mentor.

Among these trajectory changing effects, Saunders reports a positive movement upwards in the direction of behavior, outlook and grades within a matter of weeks after voluntarily enrolling in his mentorship program.

Not only has Saunders found his program having phenomenal success in changing the outlook and perspectives of the young men, his program has helped them realize that not everything is a personal attack, and that struggles bring resiliency and strength. He also continues to find his own sense of mission and purpose.

When asked what the future holds for him, Saunders said he hoped to build upon his recent public speaking experience of traveling to Arizona and representing people with disabilities in a speech he delivered before the Board of Education there. 

Saunders hopes to continue giving back to the community and helping others reach their true potential by seeking employment with the sheriff’s office. He hopes to one day serve as a school resource officer. 

As for the future of One Direction after his graduation, Saunders hopes to find someone to step into his shoes and assume his role as peer mentor, but if he isn’t successful, he would love the opportunity to continue the program after graduation.

When speaking about his drive and sense of mission, Saunders smiles.

“I’m like a gnat,” he said. ”I’ll fly around all day and draw attention to unrealized potential.”