For the members of Goldsboro civic group Men Who Care, the last three years mentoring a class of Dillard Middle students has been a labor of love.

On Thursday that labor neared its end -- at least for now -- as the group held a party for the rising ninth-graders they have worked with since the students first entered middle school.

Just after 1 p.m., the kids sat in a room at Dillard, eating pizza, laughing and enjoying themselves. Octavius Murphy, one of the leaders of Men Who Care, said that the group has mentored the same group of 21 kids since they were in sixth grade. The early going was all about gaining trust, he said.

"Initially, it was developing relationships," he said. "We came in, we actually had special meetings, the principal gave us permission to meet in the library area, so we would take the kids in there and meet with them and just discuss whatever they wanted to talk about.

"We did that for probably a year, and then we engaged them in business planning, which they had no idea they were doing."

That planning exercise took the form of a field trip, which the students were required to plan themselves. They handled the scheduling, financial planning and other aspects of the trip, and their hard work resulted in all of them visiting Sky Zone trampoline park in Raleigh.

The second year, the students came back and did the same thing, Murphy said. This year, however, was different.

"This year, we found out through them that we had earned their respect, because we developed relationships," he said. "That's not something that can happen in three months, six months or even 12 months.

"When you develop a relationship, they'll talk to you about what they're going through, their life struggles, things that they're dealing with."

Murphy ushered the kids outside, where they were met with the sight of the Goldsboro Police Department's MRAP high-water rescue vehicle, along with a pair of officers and city manager Scott Stevens. At the word of the officers, the kids clambered into the vehicle for a tour, some waiting in line and craning their necks to get a look inside.

One of those students who went through middle school with Men Who Care was Javari Ashford. He said that his time with Men Who Care had helped him become a better person.

"They taught me a lot of stuff I didn't know," he said. "Like, if I get in trouble, they asked me why I did it. And I tell them, and then they ask me what was the better way you could have done that?'"

Murphy valued the intimate conversations that he and other members have had with their students. He said that the relationships the Men Who Care have built will need to be maintained as the students move on to high school, a process aided by Goldsboro High School JROTC instructor Col. Curtis Inman.

"That's why it's so important now that we've got the trust and the relationships that we continue to keep up with them," he said. "That's where Col. Inman comes in, because he's going to track where every student is."

With their inaugural class heading out the door, Men Who Care is now looking for a new direction. Murphy said the organization is considering working with several other schools, including Dillard Academy and Carver Heights Elementary, but only time will tell where they end up.

For now, the feeling of watching the students he mentored leave Dillard Middle is bittersweet for Murphy.

"I'm troubled, because there's no certainty to what's going to happen next," he said. "The importance is to get in their lives early. These kids, they're going to be OK. They'll make mistakes, without question, but they'll know how to get through those decisions."