Ann Carr spends one hour a week playing games with 9-year old, Miguel. Carr, a journalism and public relations student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, did not even know Miguel until a year ago when she volunteered to be a mentor with a community service program, School Based Mentoring.
The program offers a convenient way for adults to help school-age children in need of additional attention. Volunteers commit just one hour a week for the duration of the school year to meet with a child who has academic or social difficulties.
In its fourth year of operation, the program's parent organization is Big Brothers and Sisters, a national youth-serving organization that works primarily with children living in single-parent families.
Big Brothers and Sister's philosophy is simple: One-to-One caring relationships with adult role models make a difference in children's lives. The programs assist at-risk children who are more susceptible to falling into bad behavior.
For busy people the mentoring program offers a means for involvement without having to commit huge blocks of time, said Stephaine Berglund, coordinator of the Anchorage School-Based Mentoring Program. She says many volunteers find it easy to squeeze an hour-long visit into their schedules.
Although volunteers can and often do choose to spend more than one hour helping with classwork or attending a special school event, Berglund has seen the value of just one hour.
“This may be the only opportunity for some kids in a day to have one-on-one time with an adult,” Berglund said.
Many volunteers are tentative when first matched. Carr said she wasn't sure if shy Miguel would really enjoy their time together. She is sure now.
Carr said, “When I see Miguel's face light up when I come in,” gives her a good feeling and reaffirms to her the value of her being there for him.
Carr was introduced to the program through a UAA sociology professor who is involved with Big Brothers and Sisters. Many of Carr's visits with Miguel are spent playing tag on the playground. She said she feels this is good for him because it encourages interaction with other children. Because of their relationship, Carr says Miguel has made new friends. She's also recognizes Miguel's artistic talents, and she's anticipating spending more time creating art projects with him.
Carr sees many other kids whom she believes would benefit by having a mentor.
"And it's good for the community," Berglund said. "Mentors witness first-hand what's going on in the schools, what the kids are like and what they're doing. It shows kids that people in the community care.”
Kamie Day's studies at UAA are preparing her to become a kindergarten teacher. She volunteered with the mentorship program three years ago as a freshman and is matched with a sixth grade girl named Brittany. Brittany's mother works and cannot often attend her hockey and soccer games. Brittany is especially pleased when Day watches her games, and Day says, “seeing Brittany happy” makes it worth it to her.
All activities must take place at the school, but all of the school resources can be availed such as eating lunch in the cafeteria, working in the art room or computer lab, visiting in the library, or playing on the playground. Some matches spend their time piecing together a craft project, working on homework or just talking. Some volunteers go along as chaperones on school field trips.
Currently there are 67 volunteer matches in 16 Anchorage schools, 14 elementary and two middle schools. There are 88 children on a waiting list.
The matching process begins with a child's referral by a teacher, counselor or school staff and permission from home to participate. For recruitment of volunteers, the program relies on word of mouth and interest aroused from formal presentations made to businesses and organizations. Volunteers are carefully screened and attend mandatory training.
Caseworkers are assigned to contact the student and volunteer on a monthly basis to make sure everyone is still happy with the match and to address any problems. They also provide resources to help the volunteer address such issues as anger management or questions that a child asks that the volunteer is not sure how to answer.
Teachers are very supportive of the program, according to Berglund. Teachers reported that the kids do better in school because mentors sometimes help with class work or homework, but overall because they help boost the child's self-confidence.
At the end of each school year, evaluations are completed by the volunteer, the student, the teacher, the parents, and the caseworker. The top three improvements in the children's behavior are consistent each year showing: increased self-confidence and school performance; better attendance; and healthier relationships.
“It's a win-win-win situation,” says Berglund. “It's great for the kids, the schools, and the volunteers.”