Mentor program needs funding (1/14/10)

Jan. 14, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

For 11 years, the Williston Central School mentoring program has built a solid and trusting foundation within the community. Hundreds of students have come through the school system and been matched with mentors — community members that act as role models.

When students feel uncertainty and stress at home or in school, mentors can be a supportive presence, say school and program officials.

“I think our program is the premier program in the state of Vermont,” District Principal Walter Nardelli said. “It’s an essential part of this school.”

But the mentoring program within Williston, as well as other schools in Chittenden South Supervisory Union, is threatened by lack of funds. A grant used to finance mentoring programs across CSSU has run out and other grants may not be available in the struggling economy. A lack of resources could mean significant cuts for mentoring programs, or worse.

The Williston School Board is being asked to consider adding $40,000 to next year’s budget to ensure the mentoring program doesn’t suffer. If the board does not agree to the funding, Nardelli said the program would be “pared back tremendously or disappear altogether.”

The School Board has expressed concern for the survival of the program, but has not made any decision on added funding. The board is expected to address the issue when it votes on a school budget on Jan. 21.

For Nancy Carlson, any cuts in the program could be damaging for students already lined up with mentors this year and next. Students within the program look to mentors as a source of stability, she said.

“It would be painful to have to freeze this program,” Carlson said. “It would be very devastating to cut kids already in the program.”

Roughly 50 Williston Central students, in grades five through eight, have mentors that meet with them weekly during school hours, Carlson said. In a model reminiscent of a Big Brother-Big Sister program, community mentors spend time with students, helping them take their mind off school by engaging in different activities.

Prior to this school year, Nardelli mentored a student for four years, spending time talking, playing games and cooking. He said it was one of his favorite times of the work week.

“It’s about creating a safe environment for the kids,” Nardelli said.

If funding disappears or is drastically cut, there will be fewer resources for mentors to work with in terms of activities, said Jan Bedard, administrative director for CSSU’s Connecting Youth.

Connecting Youth administers all mentoring programs within CSSU. Bedard said there is still a possibility that grant money will come through for next year, but school boards won’t know until after residents vote on budgets on Town Meeting Day in March.

“Everything is up in the air,” Bedard said. “This is a very fluid financial world we’re operating in right now.”

Bedard said much of the mentoring program costs cover the salaries of coordinators. Those staff members are integral in finding good matches for students and mentors, she said. She credited Carlson’s work with Williston and across CSSU for making mentoring such a success.

“She is much of the reason why the program happens,” Bedard said. “She puts in far more time than she is paid for.”

If grants are found to fund the Williston mentoring program, the $40,000 budget addition would not be needed, Nardelli said. Still, if grant money doesn’t come through and funds are not set aside to keep the program running, there would be a negative outcome, he said.

While Connecting Youth looks for other funding avenues, Carlson hopes the Williston School District will be able to subsidize much of the program in the future instead of relying on uncertain grants.

“I’m very much hoping that Williston is able to step up and bring this program in-house,” Carlson said. “We should make this program a guarantee, not a hope or a speculation.”