BEEKMANTOWN - If you ask Sandra Gardner, she'll tell you - mentoring is an important part of a child's development.
Gardner serves as principal of Beekmantown Elementary School, one of the schools involved with "A Step-Forward," a lunchtime mentoring program offered through the Champlain Valley Family Center in Plattsburgh. The center provides mentors for young students in the Beekmantown Central School District and Plattsburgh City School District on a referral basis to build relationships that encourage good decision-making.
Though in some instances a child referred to the program may come from a troubled home, that's not always the case, said Gardner.
"There are several reasons why a student would be referred to the mentoring program," said Gardner. "It could be academic, it could be social, or it could be as simple as them needing a little extra TLC in their life."
Becoming a mentor gives a person a chance to show a child someone cares about them, she said. It doesn't have to be a big commitment, either. On average, mentors donate only a few hours of time a week to meet with their mentees.
"People sometimes resist becoming mentors because they're afraid they'll have times when they can't meet with the child they're mentoring, but that's okay," said Gardner. "Children are so resilient that they will go with schedule changes if they're needed, so long as they know someone cares."
"The key thing is the relationship that is established with the mentor and the mentee," she added.
Retired educator Bunny Esposito agrees. Esposito meets regularly with Jack Longtin, a student at Oak Street Elementary School in Plattsburgh. The two frequently spend lunch together at the school, talking, playing games and working on homework.
It's all in an effort to show there are people outside of a child's own family that can be there to talk to if needed, she said.
"Having someone to look up to is important, and even if it's extra attention on top of what they're already getting at home, it's still a boost in self-confidence," said Esposito.
"It's a very good program. It's always fun," said Jack. "We get to hang out and do fun activities."
One of Jack's favorite activities was on Halloween when the two dressed in costumes - he as a jailbird zombie and Esposito as a Hawaiian leprechaun.
"It was a lot of fun," he said.
The two also had a great deal of fun collecting pink lids from Yoplait yogurt containers to raise money for breast cancer research. In all, they collect 283 lids which, at 10 cents a lid, amounted to $28.30 donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
Mentor Paula Stallsmith and her mentee, Kierston Pelkey, from Stafford Middle School in Plattsburgh, have also made good use of their time together. The two have made fleece baby blankets for underprivileged families in the area, and it's something Kierston said she really enjoys.
"It feels good," Kierston said. "I have a little sister and when I see her smile, it makes me smile. I want to make other kids smile."
"Whether we're working on blankets as part of the service project, playing games or just talking, we're having fun," said Stallsmith. "And, even if we're playing games or working on the blankets, we're still talking."
Stallsmith said it makes her feel good to be there to offer additional support or guidance to Kierston if she needs it and she encourages others to do the same for kids still in need of mentors.
"There are so many challenges for kids these days that by having a relationship like this it helps kids make good decisions," she said.
The act of being a mentor does have its rewards, said Gardner, though they're not ones that can be hung on a wall or deposited into the bank.
"There's a personal satisfaction you get," she said. "There's a sense of pride in knowing you've made a difference and showing a child you believe in them. It feels good."
Those interested in participating in the Champlain Valley Family Center lunchtime mentoring program may call the center at 561-8480. Mentors go through a stringent screening process to ensure the safety of children in the program and qualified volunteers undergo an orientation process and other training. More information may also be found on the center's Web site, www.cvfamilycenter.org.