STARKSBORO - One hour a week with a caring adult friend can make a huge difference in the life of a child. Starksboro's Robinson Elementary School is helping adults and children alike realize the value of a special friendship through their one-of-a kind mentoring program tailored for the Starksboro community.
Mentoring is an ancient concept that has its roots in Greek mythology, when Odysseus entrusted the care of his son to his elderly friend Mentor before he left for the Trojan War. Today a mentor may still be defined at "an experienced and trusted advisor". Basically, a youth mentoring program pairs a child with an older person who becomes a listening ear and a helping hand - a friend.
The Starksboro Mentoring Program has become somewhat a local model of successful mentoring. Currently there are 23 mentors paired with 23 children, or "mentees". The program is coordinated by Amy Johnston, Robinson Elementary School's Guidance Counselor, with support from Assistant Coordinator Peg Pifer. It is a hybrid program, meaning that unlike many other mentoring programs it offers a range of flexibility in activities and venues. Most mentoring programs in larger areas require that mentor and mentee meet only at designated location, such as the sponsoring school, for a specified length of time. Starksboro's program allows much more flexibility. The mentor has the option of either meeting in school or taking the student off campus, depending on the agreement that has been reached with the child's teachers and parents or guardians. This allows for a broader, richer range of activities; they might go for a hike, or out for pizza or go shopping or to the movies. In addition, many mentors welcome the child into their homes where they do crafts, bake, tend animals or garden - whatever the two are comfortable doing together.
Another attribute that sets the Starksboro program apart is the programs significant level of support for mentors. Once a mentor has agreed to join the program, and has passed an extensive background check, they are invited to meet regularly in a group with Johnston and Pifer and members of the nine-member advisory board. "The philosophy is that mentors fall in love with the program, then they fall in love with the mentee," says Johnston. Mentors and advisors become a social network unto themselves, having fun as adults and sharing stories, ideas and concerns over potluck dinners. Johnston and Pifer go to great lengths to assure that mentors never feel like they are alone and follow up with frequent phone calls and emails. "One of the reasons for the success of the program is that Amy and I try to keep in touch with everyone on a regular basis, to keep them feeling supported and connected," said Pifer.
Eligible mentees are students are Robinson Elementary School who are between 5 and 12 years of age. Parents and teachers may request a mentor for any student they believe would benefit from one-on-one adult attention. "Teachers and staff notice a difference with kids who have a mentor, and because of that, they are invested in the program," says Johnston. "The school and staff are very supportive and the mentors are welcomed when they come into the school. The students treat them like rock-stars!"
Any Starksboro adult may be a mentor and they include all ages and backgrounds. Johnston points out that it is important for mentors to be aware that their role is to be consistent, reliable older friend and not a surrogate parent, councilor or teacher..
Johnston allows that there have been a few glitches along the way in terms of making successful matches, but overall the program is a huge success. They have learned to start first with the mentor, and then find a good mentee match of an age and gender they will be comfortable with. "We also have to train the mentees, and their parents, as well as the mentor." Training is critical for everyone and each person needs to know their responsibilities, including being reliable and consistent with timing, boundaries and appropriate activities.
The Starksboro Mentoring Program relies on grants and donations, and the community has been very supportive. Last year, in response to a fundraising letter, nearly 50 Starksboro families donated over $3000 to the program. Letters are set to go out again this year, and they are hoping for a similar level of support.