Every week for the past year, Kayle Walker and her 8-year-old protege Mia have gotten together to do something fun.
Sometimes they stay indoors to bake and do crafts. Other days they spend out on the mountain, or go hiking and canoeing. This week, they took a day trip to Denver to watch a Rockies game.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Walker said. “I think it’s a great program.”
That program is Mountain Mentors, which connects children with adult mentors. Throughout the month of June, the program is pushing to recruit 30 new mentors within 30 days to be matched with some of the 57 children on the waiting list.
Building positive relationships
Mountain Mentors was started in Summit County in 1987 by the Social Services office. Eventually it moved into the Youth and Family Services section, where it resides now. Although Mountain Mentors is housed in the county government, it is funded through state grants and local foundations.
The goal of the program is to match children from ages 8 to 18 with adult mentors who will serve as positive role models.
All mentor positions are voluntary and anyone age 21 and up can apply. The process requires filling out an application, a background check and an interview with program coordinators to ensure the candidate’s qualifications as a positive role model and to find the just the right match. In signing up for the program, mentors commit to a full year of spending at least eight hours a month with their mentees.
Many of the children in the program have been referred by school counselors and teachers, social services or juvenile diversion, but the program is not restrictive.
“Anybody that’s interested in having a mentor … can have a mentor,” said Sarah Provino, Mountain Mentors program supervisor. “There are no criteria.”
Children and their families also go through an interview process, to determine the child’s personality, interests and what he or she is looking for in a mentor. The matching process can take anywhere from a couple weeks to several months, to be sure of success.
“We spend a lot of time as a staff really trying to make the best matches, because you’re essentially matching up strangers, and we want to make sure they’re compatible,“ Provino said.
Mia recalls being somewhat nervous at her first meeting with Walker, although that feeling went away quickly.
“It was exciting, right Mia?” Walker said. “We clicked right away, because I’m outgoing and Mia’s outgoing.
“I think they did a great job matching me and Mia,” she continued, “because Mia’s really outgoing and that’s what I wanted. … I think they really do a great job giving people that match that’s successful.”
16-year-old Alex is another example of a good match. He and his mentor, Ed Casias, have been together since Alex joined the program in 2006. In the beginning they did all the typical mentor/mentee activities — hiking, skiing, going to movies. As time went on, Alex and Casias grew closer and soon Alex was joining the family at dinner and then coming along on trips, including a cruise to Florida and a trip to Belize. While long trips are not part of the regular mentor program, it’s not uncommon for the mentor/mentee relationships to grow beyond it.
“It’s way past Mountain Mentors,” Alex said of his connection with Casias and his family.
Alex has a quiet, reserved personality, but as he talked about his mentor, a smile crept across his face. When asked how he thinks his life would have been different without Casias, Alex replied, “I’d probably be slacking.”
He’s referring particularly to school, where Casias’ study help and high expectations push Alex to succeed.
In her six years of involvement with the program, Provino has observed the impact that the mentors and mentees have on each other’s lives.
“It’s pretty incredible to watch,” she said. “You see these kids come in when they’re young, you see them come in before they have a mentor and you see them get a mentor and it’s seriously crazy. You see a change in their self-esteem. Their self-esteem is the first thing that changes. They’re more confident and they change substantially.”
30 mentors in 30 days
Every June, Mountain Mentors begins its drive to recruit 30 more mentors to the program. The waiting list is always longer than the volunteer mentor list, Provino said, although that doesn’t mean those kids are left hanging.
Every month, Mountain Mentors plans between four and six activities for mentors, mentees and those on the waiting list. These range from ski days and flag football to game and movie nights. Holidays are also celebrated, with pumpkin carving around Halloween and a turkey dinner in December with everyone invited, including families.
Mountain Mentors also has programs for teens, such as drop-in Mondays where teens can have a safe place to hang out, have a snack and play foosball. There’s also an after-school drug and alcohol prevention program and a workforce mentoring program with paid job opportunities.
“We do a lot more programming with kids in the community than just the mentoring, so I think our connections are stronger with these kids because we see them in multiple programs,” Provino said.
She is a strong believer in the power of one-on-one mentoring and hopes that the 30 Mentors in 30 Days drive will get results. She encourages those who might be considering mentorship, because “they’ll have an impact on the community and, more importantly, on one of the youth in the community, which is our future. So why not invest in providing experiences and just being a good role model?”
The eight hours a month requirement isn’t much, she added, and can make a big difference.
“Living up here, you think every kid in Summit County is out there on the mountain and everything, but not every kid has that opportunity (or has) someone to take them.”
Walker said she’s greatly enjoyed her time as mentor and highly recommends it to others.
“I feel like I’ve taken a genuine interest in (Mia) and her family,” she said. “She’s a friend. She’s only 8 years old, but I consider her a friend and it’s just very cool to have a relationship with someone I wouldn’t have a relationship if I wasn’t in Mountain Mentors.”
From the mentee side, Alex agreed that he would recommend the program to others as well.
“Because they’re good people,” he said, “that will take you the right way.”