DANVERS — Ayan Kassim popped her head up from beneath the clear pool water. She adjusted her goggles and flashed a big smile at her friend and mentor, Cathy Tobyne.
“Going under is good,” Tobyne said. “You were pushing with your arms and your feet. That was a long time holding your breath.”
Kassim and Tobyne spend time together every Monday afternoon, as part of the volunteer youth mentor program run by Children’s Friend and Family Services of Salem. The program pairs adults with children in need. There are 40 mentors now working with children across Essex County.
Kassim, 15, who lives in Lynn, is the oldest of seven kids. Until she was 5 years old, she lived in a refugee camp in Kenya.
“There were fences everywhere,” she recalled. “When the plane came to get us, I thought it was a monster that was going to eat us.”
She lives in a four-bedroom apartment with 11 other family members, including her grandparents. A counselor from Children’s Friend who is working with the family suggested Ayan might benefit from a mentor. That was 18 months ago.
“My mom is always real busy taking care of the other kids,” said Kassim, an eighth-grader at Breed Middle School. “I like to be with Cathy. She’s like a second mom.”
Tobyne, 54, who lives in Danvers, is happy with her pal, too.
“I enjoy seeing her and having her with me,” said Tobyne, a physical therapist at Hogan Regional Center, a state-run facility for people with disabilities in Danvers. “I didn’t see her in the month of August and I missed her.”
Tobyne volunteered to be a mentor after her two grown children left home.
“I just thought it would be a good time in my life to do something like this,” Tobyne said.
Lately, Tobyne has been teaching Kassim how to swim at the Hogan center, so that one day they can launch one of Tobyne’s kayaks.
“She wanted to do that, but she didn’t know how to swim. I said, ‘Let’s learn.’ We went and bought a bathing suit,” she said.
Out of the water, the pair trade stories about growing up as the oldest children in large families. Tobyne has five younger sisters; Kassim has six younger siblings. “I can understand a busy house,” Tobyne said.
Kassim, who is Muslim, has taught Tobyne about the Koran. Tobyne has talked to her about Catholicism.
They’ve gone for walks in Lynn Woods and along Lynn Beach, two of Kassim’s favorites spots.
“Simple things make her happy,” Tobyne said. “I think she likes the one-on-one attention.”
Kassim feels right at home at Tobyne’s house. She loves to chat with Tobyne’s husband, Tom, who, she said, is “a good cook . . . especially [on] the grill.” She often phones him to ask “What’s for dinner? He has it going before we come home.”
She sprawls out to do homework, or play the piano. She loves to sing the songs of Beyonce and Alicia Keyes, and would love to take voice lessons. “I really want to work on my vocals,” she said.
Since meeting Tobyne, Kassim said, she’s more focused on school. She’s no longer tardy. She made the honor roll for the first time ever this fall. Inspired by a science lesson on deforestation, she hopes to attend Essex Agricultural and Technical High School to study plant science.
“I’m happy,” she said.