DETROIT -- The party was ending, but there was still time for a team photograph.
The students finished their fruit salad and cupcakes, and cleaned up the candy wrappers from the tables.
Near the front of the room, Kathy Schwartz held a gift bag in one hand and a card filled with signatures and messages in the other.
She opened the card and began reading the inscriptions.
"Thanks for everything," said one, "I'm going to really miss you guys."
Near the message was a drawing, a face with tears as big as raindrops.
"It's just amazing how much they've opened up to us over the last year," said Schwartz, 41, who's the wife of Lions coach Jim Schwartz. "When we walked in the first day, the girls were face down, not wanting to look at us. And we were, 'Oh, my, gosh--this is going to be so hard.' And then, week by week, they just opened up to us."
Last week at the Detroit Lions Academy--an alternative middle school located on the corner of Cadillac Avenue and Canfield on the city's east side--a group of women completed a mentoring program for girls that didn't end in December, when the Lions' season did.
The endeavor encompassed nearly the entire school year and was led by a triumvirate of volunteers whose husbands are members of Lions senior management: Suzanne Lewand (president Tom Lewand's wife), Sabrina Mayhew (general manager Martin Mayhew's wife) and Schwartz.
But the group wasn't exclusive. Because once word of the program got out, it spread like clover, sweeping in others from the organization, such as the wives of coaches and players, and support staff.
For Kathy Schwartz, who lived in Nashville, Tenn., for 10 years before her husband was hired to coach the Lions before last season, volunteering up to two Tuesdays a month at the academy helped her to embrace the city and new home state. As their spouses try to turn the Lions around on the field, Kathy Schwartz said being involved in the mentoring project--and pursuing the common goal of enriching lives--has made the wives closer as a group.
"It's given us the opportunity outside of football to learn something about each other," Schwartz said. "And I think it has brought us closer as a staff, which you need because we're in this business together. If we didn't have this opportunity to come in and work together, we would not really know what each might need to help each other out."
Last week, Schwartz drove to the academy with Rene Cunningham, who's married to Gunther Cunningham, the Lions' defensive coordinator. They shared an "uh, oh" moment when some of the cupcakes flipped over when the car came to a stop.
A former teacher, Rene Cunningham said she was involved in a similar "wives project" in Kansas City, Mo., that was organized by Carol Vermeil, wife of then-Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, involving mentoring foster children.
"It's important to have a family-style base to the organization," Cunningham said. "And it's important for the community to know that we're not just at football games."
TACKLING A TOUGH SITUATION
Cheryl White, principal of the Detroit Lions Academy, retrieved a cardboard flower pot and traced the rim with her fingers.
In one of the mentoring activities, White explained, the dozen girls who were selected for the program--chosen at random at the beginning of the school year--were asked to decorate the outside of their pots with words that expressed their feelings.
The one held by White said: "Love. Hurt. Pain."
"Our girls--it's not a matter of them telling you their personal business," the principal said. "It's a matter of, 'This is what the reality is: This is how I live, this is what's going on.' "
Tim Pendell, senior director of community affairs for the Lions, began working with White in 2001, when the academy was formed. The middle school--which is run by the Detroit Public Schools--has partnerships with the Lions, Communities In Schools, Costco Wholesale, Dow Promise and other organizations.
With 137 students -- 54 of which have enrolled since Christmas--White and her CIS director, Alan Tumpkin, are constantly fighting the misconception of what the alternative boys and girls school is, she said.
"Kids go here because they need flexibility and support," White said. "They need a smaller learning environment. This is not a throw away program but a support program. A lot of people have a misperception that kids come here because they're bad. That's not the case."
Typically, the age of middle school students (sixth to the eighth grade) is 11 to 13. The academy's age range is 11 to 16, White said.
"We've got children that are not just over age, but have been out of school for two to three years," she said. "You have to respect what they don't know and focus on, 'What can we do?' Let's build on that. No one asks how old you were when you graduated. They ask: 'Did you graduate?' "
Last September, when Pendell met with White and asked what the academy's needs were for the school year, she had a ready response: mentoring.
Around that time, the Lions' wives contacted Pendell and told him they wanted to commit to a volunteer effort as a group. When Pendell mentioned the academy, they were excited about the possibility.
Knowing they needed guidance, they solicited help from Kimber Bishop-Yanke, founder of Girls Empowered/Boys Empowered in Birmingham, to get them rolling.
"She really gave us some insight," Kathy Schwartz said.
The women went to work with the girls, concentrating on activities that were fun and rewarding. They made dream pillows and jewelry. They attended a performance of the African Children's Choir at Ebenezer Church and ate lunch at the Detroit Athletic Club. They sat on yoga mats and meditated. They learned self-defense.
But most of all, they talked.
'WE JUST WANT TO BE HERE FOR THEM'
Throughout the school year, the number of girls in the program fluctuated.
One of the original 12 dropped out when she left school as a result of a custody issue. Another had a baby.
"She's back (in school) now--she's a 3.0 (grade-point average) -- and has caught right back up," said White, adding that the Lions' wives donated baby bottles and clothes for the new mother.
A few weeks ago, a sister of one of the students in the program committed suicide. During one of their Tuesday sessions, the group made a bracelet for their friend.
"We don't push them to tell us much," Suzanne Lewand said. "We just want to be here for them. We want to show them we care because we do."
Last week after their last get-together, the students and their mentors posed for a group photo and exchanged hugs.
The women will be back at the academy this fall, but some of the girls won't: They're moving on to high school.
Precious Butler and her cousin, JoAnn Austin, both 15, are two of them. Precious showed off her favorite green bracelet, one of 10 she has on her wrist.
"Change the world," it says.
JoAnn said: "I dream to be a chef, an interior designer and a nurse. I want to be someone in life."
"I was thinking, 'How will they remember me?' "
Schwartz, Lewand, Mayhew and the rest of the Lions' wives left school that afternoon carrying gift bags from their girls. Inside each one was a homemade ornament crafted from lace and gold pipe cleaner.
They left with angels.