A friend who takes time to listen is priceless. But during the rocky years of adolescence, finding good advice or breaking away from the same old "group" to get more perspective can be hard.
Enter the Aspirations Advocate program.
Each Thursday, a dozen adult volunteers stop by Skyview High School south of Soldotna to spend an hour hanging out with about two dozen teens. Most settle down in small groups in the school commons for an hour of conversation, homework help or games.
The sessions are low-key, but their goals are lofty.
The plan is to give students extra inner resources to enhance their success in life, explained Sheilah-Margaret Pothast, the program's organizer.
The adults serve as mentors to the teens, offering encouragement, stability, sympathetic ears, good role models and a bit of homework help now and then. The resulting friendships give teens responsible adults other than their parents they can talk to.
So far, the feedback from both generations is so positive that others schools are looking at following Skyview's lead next year. Some students already are earning better grades, Pothast said.
"It's good," said junior Kacie Lonch, one of the participating students.
When first contacted in the fall, she was surprised and worried that the sessions might be boring. But she became friends with her mentor, basketball coach Doug Blossom. He helps her with homework and gives her opportunities to talk about school life and her relationships.
Lonch said she wants to keep meeting with Blossom.
"He's, like, really nice. And it's a chance to talk to someone else," she said.
Freshman Alissa Kipp was equally enthusiastic.
"I was called down, and what they told us was that it was a good program, and it would help adults get back into the school community," she said.
Kipp said she was shy initially, but now enjoys her time with mentor Joan Miller and playing with the Miller children.
"It kind of helps me connect with a bunch of adults. ... (Mrs. Miller) kind of opens up to us, too," she said.
"I like it. I like it a lot."
Pothast said she and her husband, John, the principal at Skyview, picked mentors they thought have good attitude, character and work well with youth.
Teachers, specifically members of intervention teams, recommended students for the program. They selected those they thought would benefit from more individualized adult attention to help them reach their potential. After the teachers submitted a list of names, the Pothasts invited the students to a meeting to talk about the program. If the students and their parents approved, the students were matched up with mentors.
The mentors come from diverse backgrounds. They include parents, business people, coaches and a member of the
Kenai Peninsula Borough Assem-bly. They received special training from Pothast and carry binders full of tip sheets and school information.
The mentoring program's model is a list of eight traits that help in students' lives: a sense of belonging, heroes, a sense of accomplishment, fun and excitement, curiosity and creativity, a spirit of adventure, leadership and responsibility and the confidence to take action. The University of Maine researched young people, derived the list and set up the National Center for Student Aspirations to assist educators and students in benefiting from what their studies revealed.
The information on aspirations has inspired Kenai Peninsula high school educators. This past fall, Kenai Central High School assistant principal Hank Overturf wrote a series of newspaper columns outlining the aspirations list and how families can foster them.
Pothast, Overturf and their spouses traveled to Maine along with Suzanne Little, former head of the Boys and Girls Club of the Kenai Peninsula, and Carlton Kuhns, former principal at Nikolaevsk School, for training at the center.
"I don't pretend to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination," Pothast said. "The training we received was incredibly helpful."
She used that training and materials from the center to start the program at Skyview and to advise other peninsula schools how to benefit, as well.
The project's mission is to make the world a better place for children to learn and develop into well-educated, productive citizens, according to the training manual.
Scott Earsley, one of the mentors, said he got involved through youth work at his church. The Pothasts met him there and approached him about the aspirations mentoring project.
"Some of them do not understand how to work within the system," he said.
Building friendships with the mentors helps them develop a more mature outlook and communicate better with adults and authority figures.
"We are asked not to be judgmental. We are supposed to be really good listeners and encouragers," Earsley said.
The fruits of the mentoring program may not be apparent right away. But being consistent, faithful and showing up to listen demonstrate to students that adults care about them. That knowledge will yield benefits in years to come, he said.
Mentor Brad Phillips agreed.
"I get a lot of satisfaction," he said.
"If you can keep them off the streets and from doing something stupid, in the long run we are saving ourselves a lot of grief."
Phillips had high praise for the Pothasts and the hours they have donated to help the students.
"They really want these kids to be all they can be," he said. "A lot of other schools are seeing this as a pilot program and are really impressed."
Sheilah-Margaret Pothast said Kenai Alternative School and Kenai Central High School want to start programs of their own. Discussions also are planned in Seward and Nikiski.
"They like what they are hearing," she said.
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