A program designed to provide teenagers with positive adult role models is thriving in area schools, according to organizers.
Aspirations, a mentoring program for middle and high school students, has spread to eight sites in the past three years, now serving some 80 students, facilitator Sheilah-Margaret Pothast said.
Now the program is in search of more interested students and adult volunteers to kick off a fourth year.
Pothast, a former high school teacher and wife of Skyview High School Principal John Pothast, started the program at Skyview three years ago.
Adult volunteers are screened as required by district policy then receive training to work with students on eight specific "conditions" belonging, heroes, sense of accomplishment, fun and excitement, curiosity and creativity, spirit of adventure, leadership and responsibility, and confidence to take action.
Then, both adult volunteers and student participants who join the program voluntarily and with parent permission are surveyed and matched. Each adult works with two to four students at a time, meeting for one hour a week to talk, hang out and participate in other school-sanctioned activities. All meetings occur during school hours on school grounds.
While some activities help groups focus on the eight conditions central to the program, oftentimes, adults are just there to listen to students talk.
For James Gourp, a 10th-grader at Skyview who joined Aspirations last year, the program has helped him recognize commonalities between people.
"I got to realize how everybody else's lives are," he said. "We worked on stress management, and I realized how everybody is stressed out."
Plus, he said, the pizza parties and activities weren't bad, either.
Pothast, who is the district's facilitator for the program at all eight participating schools, said she has found most students are impressed that an adult would volunteer to spend an hour a week just "hanging out" with kids.
"Kids ask, 'Do these guys get paid?'" she said. "Teachers are wonderful mentors, but the fact that someone else would give their time, the kids are amazed."
Volunteer mentors, however, said it's not so amazing: They get a lot out of the program, too.
"Sometimes I worry I get more out of it than the kids do," confessed Annie Berge, who is preparing for her third year as a volunteer mentor at Soldotna High School.
Berge said she first got involved thinking of her own son.
"He was a good kid but never excited about anything. I went to the school, to church; I searched for someone to be there for him," she said. "As much as we like to think as parents we can do it all, kids need someone other than us."
Likewise, volunteer Thelma Antila, who is starting her fourth year as a mentor at Skyview, said she's made positive connections with the youth she's worked with and seen them blossom.
"So many kids have just so many issues they're dealing with," Antila said. "They're trying to go to school, make the grade ... to have an adult listen, be a friend, understand what they're going through ... knowing that I make a difference in some child's life is so rewarding to me."
James said those same things are important to students, too.
"It's like a way to relieve your stress, to get things off your chest," he said. "They're always there to talk to you or just listen."
How to volunteer
Volunteers for the Aspirations program must apply, go through standard screening to work in schools and sit through an interview with the principal at the participating school.
Volunteers commit to visiting students one hour a week, as well as participating in 1 1/2 hours of training a month with a mentor team.
Volunteers can choose from eight school sites where the program already is established: Homer Middle, Homer High, Kenai Central High, Kenai Middle, Nikiski Middle-Senior High, Skyview High, Soldotna Middle and Soldotna High.
To volunteer or for more information, contact Sheilah-Margaret Pothast at 714-8891 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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