Northwest NEWS

May 27, 2002


New adventures with new friends

How would it feel to walk like a penguin? A Northshore class studying the nature of penguins got the chance to find out when a former dancer led the class in a penguin-like waddle in the school's hallway. What's it like to make a patchwork quilt? A Northshore student knows. She stitched a patchwork quilt in the school cafeteria with the guidance of an adult who sews quilts for a hobby. And what was inside the suitcase on wheels? A former teacher opened her luggage to reveal a treasure chest stocked with art supplies.
   These adults—the dancer, the quilter, and the retired schoolteacher—share different interests, but all have one thing in common. Each one serves the community as a school mentor.
   In March 2002, Big Brothers Big Sisters of King and Pierce Counties initiated a new school-based mentoring program at several Northshore schools.
   The program matches a caring adult with a young person identified by parents, teachers or counselors as someone who may benefit from a mentor's counsel and friendship. The process focuses on a one-on-one relationship, but there are times when the entire class might gain from a mentor's knowledge, such as the class engaged in a study of penguins. There are also times when a mentor might accompany the class on a field trip or stay for lunch and eat with a group of students. According to Terry Schuler, Northshore coordinator for Big Brothers Big Sisters, children enjoy getting to know the mentors and want to hear about the things they love to do.
   Mentors come from all walks of life, some retired and others employed full-time, each with special interests or hobbies.
   Schuler says that participation in the program doesn't require any specific qualifications. "Just bring who you are to the school and that in itself is wonderful," she says, speaking to anyone considering a volunteer position. The only requirement, she says, is a desire to work with kids. "If they have an ability to be a friend, we want them."
   Schuler will try to match the mentor with a child who shares their interest, such as a professional dancer might mentor a child who enjoys music.
   Sometimes a child just needs a friend and she'll match two for that reason only. There are a variety of activities a student and mentor might do during their time together, usually one hour per week. Some of the activities include reading, art projects or flash cards.
   Schuler asks the mentors to initiate the relationship by bringing something of themselves, like photos of their pet or of their summer vacation. "Just open their world that way," she suggests, recalling that one mentor brought in money from France after taking a trip there. She adds that it's important for the mentor to build a relationship of trust and offers some examples. "Show the child your favorite book [when you were] a child," she says, citing 'Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel' as one possible example of a mentor favorite. Once a mentor establishes a connection, the relationship can begin to focus on encouraging the child to his or her fullest potential. Says Schuler, "Then the child will do everything they can to make you proud of them." She goes on to say that it's meaningful for a child to have a friendship with a caring adult outside the family. "It's pure magic for these kids," she says, "because it's hard for them to understand that someone's coming to spend time with them because they want to." She says the child may ask questions like, "You don't know my family? You're not getting paid? You're coming to see me? Wow!"
   When a student understands a mentor has a commitment to support their endeavors, a friendship begins.
   Encouraging words strengthens it, such as, 'I can't wait to see you next week,' or 'I'm really proud of you.' Schuler also recommends that mentors talk to their student about their own struggles as a child. One example, 'I wasn't an A student and school was tough for me.'
   The idea for the mentoring program developed when a Northshore consortium realized children needed more one-on-one attention. In coordination with Big Brothers Big Sisters, an organization that has a goal of bringing two people together in friendship, the program began at several Northshore schools: Frank Love Elementary, Fernwood Elementary, Crystal Springs and Canyon Park Junior High.
   Research conducted by Public/Private Ventures has shown that mentoring promotes academic success, more positive socialization and a greater sense of hope. A rather large-scale evaluation of a formal mentoring program administered in 1995 demonstrated that mentored, as opposed to nonmentored, children were less likely to initiate the use of alcohol or drugs and more likely to report better attitudes toward school.
   Nandini Bijoor, a mentor at Frank Love as well as a lab assistant in the science department at Inglemoor High, says that her mentoring relationship has boosted her student's self-esteem and given her motivation.
   "Mentoring creates a special bond," she explains. "She looks forward to meeting me and says, 'Look what I did!'"
   The mentor application process involves an interview and two hours of training. Topics discussed in the training session include rules of the school, child development, and various activities.
   Follow-up is an important part of the process and Schuler notes, "We'll case manage you, so you'll always be supported." Through meetings with the teacher, mentors learn what their student responds well to. The teacher might mention that the student has a passion for poetry or loves reading books about bugs.
   In addition, Big Brothers and Big Sisters encourages local businesses, faith based and civic groups to consider group involvement by providing an opportunity for several of their staff members to visit schools as a mentor team. Says Schuler, "We would like a corporation to allow employees to come in and give back to our community."
   For further information on becoming a school based mentor, call the toll free number 1-877-700-2447 and leave a message.
   "We'll call them back," Schuler guarantees. The next training session will be held June 27 and volunteers are asked to commit for one year.