Mentoring program connects Mt. Abe students and adults

BRISTOL — “You know you changed my life, right?”
Short and sweet, these words spoken by a recent Mount Abraham Union High School graduate to his Starksboro mentor of 10 years capture the essence of mentoring programs.
The mission of the Mount Abraham Mentoring Program is to invest in, support and encourage healthy relationships between Mount Abe kids and adults. It’s a mission the program’s coordinator, Brenda McKean, feels is growing more important.
“We need to create a culture of mentoring,” McKean said in a recent interview. “Kids thrive. They have hope, they do better in school, they’re less likely to get involved in risky behaviors.”
In its fourth year, the Mount Abe program supports 18 mentor-student “matches,” who meet for a minimum of one hour per week, mostly outside of school in places like Cubbers, the bowling alley or the library, McKean said. A lot of matches also stay in touch through social media sites like Facebook.
These are not academic relationships, she stressed. They’re friendships, many of which were formed at the elementary school level, when kids are more likely to develop deeper and more sustained bonds with their mentors. A lot of care goes into that matching, McKean said.
In fact, it was an elementary school program that provided the model for Mount Abe. The Starksboro Mentoring Program was founded in 2005 by Robinson Elementary School counselor Amy Johnston and went on to become a huge success. It had one problem, though: It ended after sixth grade.
Recognizing the benefits of supporting mentor relationships right up to the moment of graduation, Johnston won approval from the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union to establish a program at Mount Abe and asked McKean, then one of her Starksboro mentors, to lead it.
Now McKean mentors other mentors, focusing especially on easing the transitions into middle school and high school.
“One of the most common concerns for mentors is feeling out of place once their mentees start seventh grade,” she said. “There is a lot of change at that age. Kids are deciding who they are.”
So in addition to providing training for mentors — on setting boundaries and developing healthy relationships — McKean provides them with opportunities to support one another. Mentors gather three times a year to share their wisdom and their worries.
“Mentors can be hard on themselves,” McKean said. “My job is to back them up and to help them stick with it.”
Starksboro resident Susan Klaiber is sticking with it. She’s been mentoring Izzy, a Mount Abe ninth-grader, for nine years.
“It’s rewarding to feel like I’m making a difference,” Klaiber told the Independent. “It feels great to have that relationship with a child, and it’s made me appreciate my own growing up a little more.”
In addition to navigating Google Hangouts and attending her very first girls’ wrestling match, Klaiber has learned a lot about educational logistics and structure, especially the importance of fostering one-one-one relationships in school.
“Sharing in the life of a teen in this complex world has been instructive,” she said.”
Klaiber said she connected with Izzy through crafts.
“I would bring a ‘magic bag’ of art supplies and we would work on holiday crafts or other projects,” she said. A Mount Abe science class unit involving olive oil led to Izzy’s first small business. She sold homemade lip balm and soap products and used the proceeds to fund her Christmas shopping.
“She’s a little entrepreneur,” Klaiber said.
This year Klaiber began mentoring a second child, as well — a first-grader at Robinson Elementary.
“It’s a little bit like having substitute grandchildren,” the 72-year-old said with a laugh.
Although mentoring programs often focus on the benefits to children, McKean emphasized that there is great value for adults, as well. Mentors get opportunities for both professional and personal development.
McKean, a paraeducator at Mount Abe who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, knows a thing or two about professional development.
Two resources she finds especially helpful are Burlington-based Mobius: Vermont’s Mentoring Partnership, an umbrella organization that provides resources for the state’s mentoring programs, and the Search Institute, a research organization that studies and works to strengthen youth success in schools, youth programs, families and communities.
Mobius has been instrumental to Mount Abe’s success, McKean said, not least because it matches her organization’s fundraising up to $5,600 a year. The Mount Abe Mentoring Program receives no funding from the school district, so McKean organizes fundraisers throughout the year. On March 30, for instance, local band The Grift headlined an event at New Haven restaurant Tourterelle. About 75 people attended, McKean said.
The Search Institute has created what it calls the Developmental Relationships Framework, based on 70 years of research.
A March 22 article written by the Institute’s vice president for research and development, Gene Roehlkepartain, applies that framework to “March for Our Lives,” a national movement to end gun violence in schools and elsewhere:
•  Listen. “Rather than assuming we know what young people are thinking about the issue and why it matters to them, we need to hold the space for them to tell us.”
•  Respect. “To find their voices, young people need us to take them seriously and treat them fairly (even if we disagree with their position).”
•  Navigate. “An important way adults (can support young people) is to help them figure out how to work through the system, challenge injustices, and try new approaches when one strategy doesn’t work.”
•  Reflect on failures. “Working through setbacks sets young people up to continue being active participants in and contributors to civic life.”
•  Collaborate. Adults sharing power instead of “taking over” helps young people “learn critical skills for working together to create impact.”
•  Let me lead. “The power comes in young people’s own voice and leadership.”
Mentors in the Mount Abraham Mentoring Program must be at least 21 years old and commit to at least one hour per week for a minimum of one year. Online applications for interested 5-Town residents are available online at tinyurl.com/yd6zdgxy. Program coordinator Brenda McKean can be reached at [email protected].
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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