by Darla Senecal, Regional Coordinator

Last year Chris Hultquist of Mentor Connector placed 149 kids with mentors in Rutland County.

There is a trend among the youngest members in the program. They are appearing with higher rates of trauma, and entering the program with more challenging histories. Finding and training mentors that are prepared to support themis a challenge, but the impact that a caring, consistent adult can have in a young child’s life is enormous.

Here is how Chris and Mentor Connector are working connect kids and adults in Rutland county.

Chris’ background is in mental health and substance abuse counseling. Over the years he kept seeing themes in communities- substance abuse and poverty came up again and again.  This made him interested in working with systems and working on the community level to develop programs on a larger scale that would help individuals break out of the cycle of poverty & substance abuse. Mentoring kept resurfacing throughout his life, both formal and informal.  

Mentor Connector is Rutland County’s non-profit, community-based mentoring organization. Fifteen years ago Rutland Mental Health, Boys & Girls Club, & Rutland Regional Medical Center all had mentoring programs, but all were struggling with finding mentors and all needed funding. The funders got together and created an umbrella organization to be a recruiting arm. They ended up grafting in all of the organizations and creating the mentoring organization that eventually became Mentor Connector.

Youth ages 5-25 can take part, and 25-30% are 5-10 years old. According to their website, “Mentoring is a series of fun moments that make a huge difference. Whether it’s on the basketball court, volunteering at the local food shelf, or cooking dinner together, a mentor guides through small teachable moments.” Mentor Connector boasts some of the longest mentor matches in the nation.  Their average is 4 years with some lasting as long as 15 years. Nationally the average mentor relationship is 9 months. The organization works closely with community partners to make sure every kid has the best chance at success.

The 1- on- 1 mentor match is at the center of the success of the mentor program. Throughout the duration of a mentoring match there are three key areas of focus:

  • Life Skills: Using teachable moments to expose youth to skills that enable them to develop into successful adults.
  • Educational Curiosity: Encouraging a love of learning in youth; working to connect schooling to the real world.
  • Workforce Development: Helping youth build the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to succeed in the      workplace.

Starting with mentees as young as 5 years old, mentors have discussions about life goals.  Where do they want to go in life? What is their vision? What are the skills needed to achieve that vision? Then later on in high school they begin a workforce development plan, resume building, and job shadowing. Currently there are 9 kids in the program that want to start their own business! Mentor Connector has partnered with the Rutland Small Business Development Association to help them with marketing & business plans.  

Who can become a mentor?

“There is a place for everyone,” says Hultquist.  A lot hard work goes into matching mentors to the best kids and the kids with the best mentors. Sometimes there is 6-8 month wait before a match is made. There are many details to be considered. The day people apply to become mentors they begin training. Volunteers receive a packet of information and a series of training emails. Most mentors do not have a personal history of poverty, so the trainings help them understand where the kids are coming from. There are sections on motivational interviewing, child mental health first aid, child abuse, child abuse reporting, how to work with families, boundaries, and self-care. On average volunteers undergo 6 hours of training before they are even matched. Once matched there are 6 trainings in-house and 6 referral trainings.  The support system is vast for mentors: there are support groups and coordinator check-ins with youth, the family and the mentor. There are also lead mentors who all have a background in mental health that each oversee a team of 20 mentors. They create a hub of support for each team member. There are multiple trainings throughout a match as the needs of the youth or family change. When a match is made, the parents receive a mentor along with each child in the family. Some of the criteria considered when matching include personal interests, personality, location and social plane, communication style, and the family situation. Bad matches cost time and money, to say nothing of the emotional impact.

Mentors say they get more benefit out of the relationship than the kids do. People come to Mentor Connector to give back; they have sense that they really do help the community. Mentoring creates a sense of purpose- not only are you spending time with youth but you are seeing life through a different lens. Mentors start seeing the community differently.

School-based matches occur when mentors will meet with their charges in the school building. There are also community matches where the pair may meet wherever and whenever works best for them. A minimum commitment of one hour per week is required.  

Right now there is a need for younger males to work as mentors. That is what the youth are asking for. Rutland is becoming more and more multicultural.  Within the program, 10% of mentees are in a minority population. The lived experience of mentors that have this background is more important than ever. Rutland is also seeing an increase young professionals. Mentor Connector is using social media and their website (https://mentorconnector.com) to target this demographic. Referrals are the best way to recruit new volunteers; current mentors are the best advocates. In the past year the number of applications for mentors has doubled and Hultquist is struggling to fill them. Not that there are not enough youth looking for matches. The cost is about $2,000 to train volunteers and cover expenses, so the organization must find double the financing.  

Where do you find the kids?

While all kids are welcome, Mentor Connector gives special consideration to vulnerable youth. 95% of participants in the program are in poverty, have a family history of drug and/or alcohol abuse, violence or incarceration or are disconnected from school. Recently the organization started screening for Adverse Childhood Experiences as a way to better match children and mentors. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association describes Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect. They may also include household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who have substance use disorders. ACEs are strongly related to the development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems throughout a person’s lifespan, including those associated with substance misuse. Hultquist and his team recently began using the ACEs screening tool as an aide in the matching process. “We had known this from past experience but now, with a screening tool, our matches are even stronger,” Hultquist said.   Any child with 3 or more ACEs has a mentor who is specially chosen to best meet the needs of that child. This creates more successful match and helps to ensure neither the child nor the mentor is overwhelmed in any way.

According to Hultquist those with the highest and lowest needs tend to have the most resources available to help meet those needs. He is looking for the middle 40% of kids who are not getting the support needed. The ones getting into trouble and end up incarcerated down the road. The question, “How do we as an organization step in before there is a problem?” is at the core of Mentor Connector.  

The youngest ones

With the youngest members, it can be difficult to find the right balance for a mentor, so that they are not feeling like just a babysitter. It is important to set clear expectations with all parties, including the family. Providing activities that are age appropriate and connect to the focus areas of building life skills and educational curiosity are essential. It can take 6 months to develop a relationship and up to 1 year before real change is seen. Finding youth who really want to be part of the organization is key. Often times a mentor will have a similar aged child and they will all go on an adventure. Sometimes, they have a shared interest such as sports, cooking, Legos, board games, hikes, or spending time sightseeing. There are group trips to the Montshire Museum and ECHO Center, looking at holiday lights, Red Sox games and many other activities. Building self-worth, self-value, a sense that somebody cares, and that you are acknowledged and are worth listening to and that you have skills has a deep effect in the younger ages.  

There is a trend among the youngest members in the program. They are appearing with higher rates of trauma, and entering the program with more challenging histories. Finding and training mentors that are prepared to deal with these behaviors is a challenge. Hultquist sees family systems breaking down for multiple reasons. The program is seeing kids with parents who are checked out on drugs or incarcerated. There are single parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents raising young kids on their own.

Unless a mentor is brought in to make a change, that narrative becomes normal for the child and then the cycle continues.  Mentor Connector works closely with schools and DCF. Any child that is in jeopardy of being taken from the home is prioritized. Mentors can be one of the only constants when a young child is being moved from foster home to foster home. Twenty percent of kids in the mentor program are in the foster system. Often there in no male role model in the home and no common connection. National statistics state that one third of youth have no natural support system, no non-parental supportive adult in their life. Hultquist is also quick to add that even parents that are parenting well, often don’t have community support around them. Without that connection and support parents often feel overwhelmed. Mentors are important for all kinds of families.

Community

There is a significant financial benefit to the community when a child is mentored.

Mentor Connector makes every effort to give each participant:  Hope– Letting youth know that what is happening today is not the end of the world; the knowledge that each of us deserve a Place in this world; and that each of us has Value in the community.  The Youth at Risk Survey in 2015 states that 56% of kids in Rutland do not feel connected to their community. That is why it is easy to commit a crime, spray paint a car, to use drugs, or fail in school.  When youth realize the community is counting on them to become strong leaders, it gives them the sense of responsibility they need to make better choices.

Hultquist’s vision for the future of Mentor Connector is to learn how to empower, support and position kids for success in a way that does not enable them or give them too much responsibility. The goal is to allow kids to be kids and give them the tools to succeed. By focusing on youth from an early age and providing what they need to succeed, Mentor Connector hopes to help them overcome situations in their past so that they are ready to challenge the world and really succeed in the future.

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