Schools district seeks volunteers for mentoring program

Wanted: Difference-makers

Posted: Wednesday, September 14, 2005

HELP WANTED — Immediate openings for caring adults who like to work with kids. Interested adults should be open-minded, tolerant and empathetic. Good listening skills a must. Job requires an hour a week plus one evening a month for training. Compensation includes the rewarding feeling of making a difference in a young person’s life.

“If I could have a mentor for every kid in every school, that would be great,” said Sheilah-Margaret Pothast, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District facilitator for the Aspirations Advocates mentoring program.

“The number of kids we can have participate corresponds to the number of mentors we have to work with them, and we typically have more students wanting to participate than mentors we have to work with them.”

Or, as Ron Janiszewski, who served as a mentor at Kenai Middle School last year and plans to do so again this year, put it: “The youth of Kenai need you. Step up to the plate and be a mentor.”

Pothast added one request: If you don’t have the time to volunteer yourself, at least spread the word to others.

“Even if they think an hour a week is not something they can give, maybe they know somebody and they can bring it to their attention,” said Pothast of the need for mentors. “Our kids really need our involvement, and if they can give the time, we’d really appreciate it. I know the kids really appreciate it.” The Aspirations program, now in its fifth year in the district, is a mentoring program for middle and high school students that matches kids who might not be reaching their full potential with mentors who basically serve as adult friends. Student participation is voluntary and is done with parent or guardian approval.

After starting at Skyview High School five years ago, the program has spread to several more schools in the district, including Nikiski Middle-High, Kenai Middle, Soldotna High, Soldotna Middle and Skyview High schools. Pothast said site coordinators for Kenai Central High and Homer Middle are being sought to keep the program running at those schools.

Mentors meet with small groups of students once week for about an hour — at Kenai Middle School it’s usually during the 40 minutes students have lunch or study hall.

“You really don’t have a snapshot of what a mentor session is,” said Mark Manuel, a school counselor at Kenai Middle School and the site coordinator there.

Sometimes, Manuel said, students might have an issue they want to talk about. Other times, mentors might choose a topic or activity that promotes one of the eight conditions identified by the National Center for Student Aspirations that make a positive difference for students: belonging; heroes; sense of accomplishment; fun and excitement; curiosity and creativity; spirit or adventure; leadership and responsibility; and confidence to take action.

“It’s pretty easy,” Janiszewski said. “The school provides some board games, or we’d bring in Uno or a football. Just simple things like that that allowed you to strike up a conversation.”

Janiszewski also knows how to make balloon animals and can do illusions, and taught those tricks to the students he worked with as an icebreaker.

A children’s pastor at the Kenai New Life Assembly of God, Janiszewski said he looked forward to his weekly sessions and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of interacting with kids outside of his usual church setting.

“I enjoyed spending time with some of our youth and getting to know them with a different kind of mentality than I’m used to in church. It’s good to see how they interact and what some of their issues are, and to help them deal with those issues.”

Manuel pointed out that mentors aren’t asked to be counselors or social workers, just good listeners, and “if an issue comes up that requires more than empathetic ear, mentors are trained to refer to the appropriate professionals.”

Janiszewski said the once-a-month training sessions also were helpful.

“It allowed us to share some of the things the kids shared with us, and it allowed the mentors to be mentored,” Janis-zewski said. “We learned how to deal with certain situations and how to approach certain situations.”

Manuel and Pothast said students look forward to the sessions even more than the mentors.

“I’ve observed kids being excited the day their mentor shows up. They know he’s coming, but they still ask about it,” Manuel said.

Because the program uses federal funds, the district has collected data on participants. While Pothast said the results show that some students may improve their attendance or earn better grades or have fewer discipline problems, the numbers don’t necessarily reflect the true value of the program.

“Attendance may not be an issue. it may be more about connecting with the school, and that’s hard to measure,” Pothast said, pointing out that some students at Skyview are looking forward to their fourth year of participation.

“From the first day school starts, it’s ‘When do we start? When do we start?,’ which says a whole lot more than GPA or attendance. It’s hard to measure self-esteem and confidence.”

For Janiszewski, it’s fairly easy to measure the rewards.

“It’s great to be a part of helping them just start to feel important,” he said. “... It’s a very rewarding experience.”

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