Starksboro mentors keep skill-building afloat

STARKSBORO — This summer, Stephen Ahern taught Isaiah Szczecienski how to build a skin boat. The two worked all summer — using nearly all donated materials — making plans, bending wood and tying the “skin” to the frame to make a watertight canoe, fit for its maiden voyage on Lake Iroquois. The two presented their completed project to the students and staff of Robinson School at a weekly MARS (Meeting At Robinson School) gathering.
Ahern is Isaiah’s mentor through Robinson School’s very successful Starksboro Mentoring Program. The two are a perfect example of a well-matched mentor-mentee  pair. They discovered a common interest in building and last year they built a number of models together, and then this summer, they upped their game and took on a full-scale canoe. At the MARS meeting the two were asked what important lessons they learned. Ahern said he learned that Isaiah is a fast study, and Isaiah commented that it took a lot of time and effort to build the canoe.
The mentoring program is run by Coordinator Amy Johnston, Robinson School’s guidance counselor, and by Assistant Coordinator Peg Pifer. The program began in 2006 and not only is a success but has served as an example for others to follow. Currently there are 28 mentor matches at Robinson School. Mount Abraham Union High School, Lincoln Community School and Monkton Elementary School are all in the second year of their own mentoring programs, which are based on the Starksboro model. 
Johnston said that the Mt. Abe Mentoring Program is set up so that mentor matches from any of the elementary schools can continue on beyond sixth grade. “Because the efficacy of mentor matches is based on the strength and the length of the match, we are thrilled that Mount Abraham Mentoring Program is now able to pick up our matches as they graduate from Robinson School.”
Mentoring has been lauded by childhood experts, who see it as a way to bring stability to the lives of children who are “at risk.” A caring adult willing to take just an hour a week for a one-on-one relationship with a child or young adult can have an enormous impact on that child’s life and future success. Children who have been asked how they overcame childhood challenges overwhelmingly respond, “I had someone who believed in and cared about me.”
One of the features that makes Starksboro’s program successful and unique is that it allows for a broad range of activities, one-on-one. While mentoring programs in larger communities generally require activities to take place at a designated location, and for a specific time, the Starksboro program has taken a different path, allowing the mentors and mentees to meet either on or off school grounds, with a broad and rich range of program supported activities. They might go for a hike, or out for pizza, or to the mentor’s home to bake cookies, tend gardens, care for animals — whatever the two are comfortable doing together. In the case of Isaiah and Stephen, it allowed them the time and the flexibility to accomplish a pretty impressive goal together, to complete their project on their own time and proudly share it with the Robinson community.
Another unique feature of Starksboro’s program is the level of support for mentors. Once a mentor has agreed to join the program, and has passed an extensive background check, they are invited to meet regularly in a group with Johnston and Pifer and members of the seven-member advisory board.
“The philosophy is that mentors fall in love with the program, then they fall in love with the mentee,” says Johnston. It has helped to foster a sense of camaraderie among mentors and advisers and they become part of their own social network, sharing ideas, stories and concerns at adult-only pot-luck gatherings. Just as importantly there are group activities with mentors and mentees, which may include a swim day at Mt. Abe, a sledding party, bowling — any activity that can be fun for a group of adults and children.
The program is funded with support from Robinson School and grants from charitable foundations, but it also depends on financial support from community members to help defray the costs of recruitment, training, mentor screening (background checks and finger printing), special events and supplies. “Residents of Starksboro are incredibly generous in supporting the program, as is Robinson School and Vermont EPSDT (Early Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment),” said Johnston. “Mobius also provides funding for the program through the Vermont Mentoring Grants initiative, which utilizes funding from the A.D. Henderson Foundation, the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children, and the Vermont Agency of Human Services.”
Anyone who wishes to support the Starksboro Mentoring Program, either financially, by becoming a mentor, or just by asking more questions about mentoring should contact Amy Johnston at 453-2949.
Editor’s note: This article was provided by Alice Dubenetsky.

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