BY KATHRYN BASSETT firstname.lastname@example.org kpcnews.com
When Kevin Heller talks about his role as a mentor, his passion for the work is clear.
“The key is being a great listener,” Heller said.
Heller recalled mentoring a student at DeKalb High School who had missed a lot of school.
“In our first month together, I’m not sure he said 10 words,” Heller recalled. “He was very quiet.”
As a mentor with the DeKalb County HOPE (Helping Our Pupils Excel) program, Heller continued to meet with the student at the high school and mentored him for three years.
“During that time he wanted to quit school … I literally built a relationship with him where I said, ‘I’m not going to let you quit,’” Heller said.
“I told him every time I saw him, ‘You’re going to graduate, and I’m going to be sitting there watching you walk.’ And he did. He graduated.”
Heller said at that moment, he felt as proud of the young man as he felt when his own children graduated.
January is National Mentoring Month. Each year mentoring programs use National Mentoring Month to start a dialogue on the importance of quality mentoring programs and to recruit volunteer mentors.
According to the National Mentoring Month website, with a mentor, at-risk youth are: 52 percent less likely than their peers to skip a day of school; 55 percent more likely to be enrolled in college; 46 percent less likely than their peers to start using drugs; 81 percent more likely to report participating regularly in sports or extracurricular activities; 78 percent more likely to volunteer regularly in their communities; and more than twice as likely to say they held a leadership position in a club or sports team.
The same research shows that one in three young people in the United States will grow up without a mentor, the website states.
“I had to become a mentor to really understand the value and the need,” Heller said.
Shirley Johnson of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program is the coordinator for the Catholic Charities Mentoring Program. It aims to match mentors and students in Noble and DeKalb counties, and ultimately throughout northeast Indiana, through a referral system and application process. The goal is to increase school attendance as well as prevent truancy and other at-risk behaviors.
Johnson said she is focusing on recruiting mentors in communities across northeast Indiana.
“We’re looking for people who are committed to helping kids,” Johnson said.
Where HOPE mentors commit to meet with students for one hour a week in the school setting, Mentoring Program volunteers and students participate in after-school, weekend and group activities, Johnson said.
Parental involvement also is required, and parents are expected to commit to a year with the program, Johnson said. Orientation, training and activities are available to parents on a regular basis.
Mentors must commit to spending at least two hours a week for a year with the student. They also must complete an application process, interview and background check.
Johnson noted that mentors could come from church and civic groups, groups of co-workers, and other interested individuals.
Group activities that mentors and their students have enjoyed include participating in Christmas parades, working on service projects, holiday parties, movie nights and suppers.
“We interview the kids to find out what they want to try,” she said. “We’re giving them the opportunity to do something fun.
Mentors and mentees also participate individually in activities such as walking, biking, bowling and fishing.
“They can do anything that the parent or guardian agrees to,” Johnson said.
To avoid financial burden, Johnson said, the program emphasizes participating in activities that do not require spending a lot of money. Johnson said she has been fortunate to receive donations of tickets and discounted admission to area events and venues.
Johnson said the Mentoring Program has been active in northeast Indiana for about five years and over the life of the program has served about 30 children. As she actively seeks more mentors, her goal is to have 40 matches, she said.
While many children move and no longer participate in the program, she has two matches that have continued for more than four years.
“I’ve seen kids mature and grow from a shy little boy to someone who has stepped up to the plate,” Johnson said.
HOPE mentor Abby Millett said the rewards of mentoring are shared by both the mentor and mentee.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing to do, for both sides,” she said.
Millett began mentoring more than 10 years ago and has built long-term relationships with the students she has mentored.
“I see it as a change to have one-on-one time with the kids,” she said. “It’s not really the tutoring. It’s the relationship that we develop. It’s very rewarding. I love my kids. It’s been a great experience for me. I highly recommend it.”
Heller noted that many times the mentor must break down barriers to get to know his or her mentee.
“Sometimes students are cautious. I’ve had students even be suspicious. You have to break through the ice and get to know each other. You try to get to a point where you can have a nice conversation and let them talk about whatever they want to talk about,” said Heller.
“For me, (mentoring) has been one of the more fulfilling things I’ve done in my life.”
Johnson will conduct a meeting Jan. 24 from 4-6 p.m. at the RSVP office, 107 W. 5th St., Auburn, for anyone who is interested in becoming a mentor. Supper will be available. She noted that individuals who serve as mentors with other agencies also are welcome to join the Mentoring Program.
Johnson asks those who plan to attend to contact her at 925-0917 or by email at email@example.com.
“There are always going to be kids who need mentors. Our biggest challenge is getting mentors,” Heller said. “There are so many people who have things that they can share.”
To learn more about HOPE, visit hopedekalbcounty.org.
For information on National Mentoring Month, visit nationalmentoringmonth.org.