Mentoring Relationship Shines a Light on Blossoming Botanist

18-year-old Alex Warner came to his first mentoring meeting a year and a half ago with a plant physiology textbook in hand and a feeling of uncertainty around what to expect from his new volunteer mentor. Adrien Gallant – who has spent over 30 years in horticultural science and plant nutrition – immediately recognized the book from his second year of studies at the University of Guelph.

“It was then that I realized that Alex was a very exceptional young man,” says Adrien.

Patsy Pillay, coordinator of the Passport Mentoring Initiative, was told she would likely have to facilitate this initial meeting between the duo. Instead, she laughs as she recalls the instant connection between Alex and Adrien: “They got on like a house on fire,” she exclaims.

The Community Living Ontario program provides mentorship opportunities for students between the ages of 14-21 with intellectual disabilities at no charge and with-out having to get on a wait list first.

Patsy first met Alex as a shy teenager who participated in only certain classes at school. But when she visited his home, she saw his face light up and his ability to take control of conversations about plants and horticulture. “It really puts him in his element and you can appreciate how much knowledge he has about it. I saw this excitement in him and I thought, ‘wow I wish I was that passionate about something at his age,’” she says.

Patsy engaged in a screening process among volunteer applicants and was struck by Adrien’s warmth, sense of humour and rich experience in the field.

“I think the best part would probably be that we can really understand each other,” reflects Alex. “We can sort of know where each other is going with what we’re saying. We’re actually learning a fair bit from each other. It’s not just me learning from him; he’s also learning from me.”

The duo has been meeting every other Sunday for two hours since their initial meeting. Adrien usually starts the sessions by asking Alex to tell him about his week, fol-lowed by an educational component to further expand Alex’s knowledge on horticulture.

“On a personal level, I see a lot of myself in him as well,” says Adrien. “There are a lot of things that he doesn’t do that a typical man his age would be interested in, and I was the same way at that age. He’s not necessarily interested in hockey; he’s interested in archaeology and history – that is something that fascinates me as well.”

With one year left in high school, Alex hopes to continue his studies at the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture and become a botanist.

“I was really fortunate when I got my first job,” Adrien says. “There was a chemist who worked there; he took everybody under his wing. Mentoring at work doesn’t really happen anymore: you’re given your job and you start tomorrow morning. If I can be a mentor for another person, that would be very valuable. It’s just a tiny way to give back.”

Although the program was intended to last for six months, Alex and Adrien have developed a valuable relationship with no end in sight.

“I would want to keep the friendship, especially if he goes out of town. I want to visit him on a regular basis and keep in touch. Definitely that would be important,” Adrien says. “Some students have problems when they first go to college, so they need to know that they’ve got support from somebody that’s interested in what they’re actually doing.”

Adrien pursued his dream of studying horticulture at the University of Guelph over 30 years ago and spent most of his career working in plant nutrition. This was very rewarding for him, but left him with little to no time for volunteering until more recently when his schedule freed up as a semi-retired owner of a consulting business.

“University was a wonderful experience for myself when I went, and I wanted my kids to share that experience and happiness, which they did. It’s something I would like Alex to experience as well. Plus, I think his background and his interest is too valuable to lose,” Adrien says.

When asked about his ambitions and dreams before becoming involved with the Passport Mentoring program, Alex says he had an idea of his goals, but he wasn’t as close to achieving them as he is now. “With the help of Adrien, as well as the school I’m at, I’m able to push myself further,” he says.

Check out a video of Alex’s Story below!