Youth mentoring program thrives with community support

Chris Stewart reads with Connecting Youth mentee Braedon Minehart at WCS in a photo from a few years ago.

By Susan Cote

Observer Staff

This November, a program first launched at Williston Central School in 1999 will kick off another year. The Connecting Youth Mentoring Program (CYMP) enters its 22nd year of matching adult volunteers from the Williston community with students in grades 5-8 for one-on-one relationships. 

Not about academics or tutoring, these pairings are better described as special friendships between students and adults, who each commit to spending one hour per week together. How that time is spent is up to each pair, but often includes conversation, game-playing, reading and engaging in crafts or cooking projects. Students can ask to be included in the program and may also be referred by parents or school personnel who think a child will benefit.

In addition to weekly meetings among pairs, in a typical year, i.e., pre-Covid, the program has included a fall barbecue and a reading challenge that culminates with a celebratory ice cream social in the spring – events that include the students’ family members.

Nancy Carlson, Connecting Youth Mentoring coordinator, has stewarded the program since 2002. During a recent presentation, Carlson shared that children who are engaged with a mentor are more likely to go to college, volunteer and be positive influences within their communities. They are also more likely to step up to mentor others and to achieve positions of leadership within their chosen fields. They even tend to enjoy more positive relationships with their parents. 

She notes that a key to the program is reciprocity. 

“The mentors are amplifying their mentees’ strengths and their interests and their best qualities. These relationships are also transformative for the adults. They’re about two people growing and learning and becoming their best selves together.”

Mentor portraits

Chris Stewart first became a mentor several years ago at his mother’s urging, after she herself began as a mentor 12 years ago. His wife Diane also serves as a mentor. 

“As a man that doesn’t have children, and whose nieces and nephews are grown, I like the connection with the young people … learning what they know about and are interested in.”

After being involved in the program for a few years, Stewart, a general contractor who also builds furniture, was asked by Carlson to take on a special project with a student. Stewart readily agreed and together he and the girl built a solid maple table that today sits outside Carlson’s office. 

“I like being part of the school and maybe giving something back. It feels good,” he said. “When I was a fifth or sixth grade boy, I would have given anything to have somebody other than a parent or teacher to talk to …. It’s a wonderful way to connect with a person with whom they can form a trusting relationship.” 

“If I were to sum up the program in one word, it’s ‘fun,’” said Stewart.

Ruth Magill began as a mentor in 2011 and has had three mentees, a girl and two boys. She got along well with all three and says they each had a good sense of humor and liked playing games. The girl wrote fictional stories that she shared with Magill. With both boys, she baked cookies once or twice a month in the mentoring program kitchen. 

“They felt I was a friend, and I felt the same way toward them,” said Magill. “I would encourage adults to do this, if you have time to give one hour a week. Nancy [Carlson] is so helpful in scheduling the time and she’s very good at matching up interests. The matches for me have been perfect.”

Angela Arsenault is excited to meet her first student mentee match this fall. “It’s like a gift that’s coming to me,” she said.

Arsenault, who has two school-aged children of her own, currently serves as chair of the CVSD school board. She first heard about CYMP from fellow school board member, Josilyn Adams, who is a mentor. Her daughter also relayed positive comments from a fellow WCS student who participates in the program.

The way she thinks about her mentor role is that, “I’m not there to tell a child what or who or how they should be, but to be there to support their own self-discovery.”

“As a member of the school board, I’m so happy and grateful to see a program like this thriving in our schools…. It’s about social-emotional health, engagement, sense of belonging. These are things every student needs…before they can be available for learning.”

“It’s a relatively small time commitment, but the impact can be large and long term.”

“Owned by this community”

While volunteer mentors form the backbone of the program, Carlson also noted the importance of other supports from the community.

“Rotary has provided the magic sauce,” said Carlson. “The Williston-Richmond Club provides program funding, helps spread the word throughout the community and is the source of many stellar mentors.”

Rotary member Barbara LeWinter notes that investing in the mentoring program furthers one of the goals of the organization, “to strengthen the capacity of communities to support basic education and literacy.”

LeWinter has been an active supporter for 16 years. After Carlson decided the program should have its own reading materials, LeWinter, a former school psychologist, began researching book recommendations to fit the social/emotional theme identified by Carlson each year, ensuring a selection of titles to match different reading levels and interests. The Rotary club also supplies funds to purchase books for the program’s annual reading challenge and to provide gift certificates for students to purchase books of their choosing at the Scholastic Book Fair.

A bulletin board at WCS displays mentor pairs’ thoughts about last year’s theme of Friendship.

Carlson also described “tremendous” support from the staff and faculty of the school and teachers’ spouses, as well as local businesses who have sponsored events over the years. Until last year’s pandemic restrictions, the Edge Williston gave a day each year for mentors and mentees to enjoy the pool and fieldhouse facilities together. 

“The beauty of this program is that it is owned by this community,” said Carlson.

Persevering through the pandemic

The lack of in-person school last year challenged program activities.  Nevertheless, “last spring … 17 eighth graders stayed the course through this pandemic. They did whatever they needed to do to connect with their mentor,” said Carlson. 

Magill and her mentee were one of those pairs. “We were meeting outdoors when the weather was still good,” Magill said. “Eventually when the weather got really bad Nancy had set up a space for us inside where we could be by ourselves and wear masks and we continued to do [many of] the things we’ve always done.”

They helped each other cope. “At times it was sharing the difficulties … students missing their friends, we adults sharing similar situations and having that hour to talk about it,” said Magill.

Through LeWinter’s efforts, Rotary funded a virtual Scholastic Book Fair with books being delivered to mentees’ homes.

Carlson describes this year as a rebuilding year. There are 45 returning pairs and she expects to make many new matches with new mentors and returning mentors who are stepping up. 

Her efforts will include ensuring that parents, students and mentors are comfortable with the ways the pairs will stay connected, whether that is in person, outdoors or indoors, or virtually over Google Meet. 

While it may not be predictable, “I think we have a wonderful year ahead,” said Carlson.