BY ANGELO LYNN
RUTLAND COUNTY — With the stresses of the pandemic, disrupted school days, and family members out of work for parts of these past two years it is no wonder that the need for mentoring is at an all-time high.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in need for support among area youth since the pandemic,” said Nicole Rossi, a case manager at the Mentor Connector in Rutland. “We have 10-15 youth who are urgently waiting for mentors in the towns of Brandon, Pittsford and Proctor, alone, and about 60 young people looking for matches throughout the county.
That’s a significant number considering the program currently has about 150 ongoing adult-to-youth matches, Rossi said, adding that the program’s belief is that “every youth who wants a mentor should have the opportunity to have one, so we try our best to fulfill that role.”
Finding the right match has been especially important over the past two years because the increased isolation forced by the pandemic has amplified problems with depression and anxiety — factors that are already exacerbated by today’s social media creating low esteem among many teens.
Having a mentor, Rossi said, provides a temporary escape from those stressful environments and gives teens a different space to explore and enjoy with their mentor — a place to create new hobbies, passions and to broaden what Rossi calls the youth’s “circle of support.”
The goal, Rossi said, is to help the youth feel connected to people and to the larger community. “Every youth deserves to feel like they belong to the community and to the state. To feel as if others care… We’re seeing the loneliest generation right now. It’s why mentoring really works. It’s in-person and it’s not judgmental.”
BEING A MENTOR
What does it take to be a mentor?
Just an average of an hour a week is the easy answer. After that it’s up to each mentor and their match to discover what’s comfortable and works best for them.
“We take a lot of time to make our matches,” Rossi stressed, “matching the geography with the personality traits, and then we provide a lot of match support to make sure the connection is working.”
The Mentor Connector offers sponsored enrichment classes and activities at the downtown Rutland Center and can hold some activities in other locations closer to whichever town the matches are closest to. The program is also very flexible in terms of meeting times and frequency, allowing for vacations, trips away, or other activities that may prevent a mentor from being able to meet weekly.
“With the pandemic, we’ve had to come up with a lot of variations on that weekly, one-hour meeting,” Rossi explained, adding that meetings every other week for a couple of hours have worked as have variations on that. What’s important, Rossi said, is to meet on a regular basis so the youth can look forward to getting together with their mentor with consistency. Group activities with other mentors in the area are also encouraged.
Often, Rossi said, the youth becomes part of the mentor’s family and joins them on outings, family birthdays, even vacations.
Impressively, the average mentorship through the Rutland program lasts for almost four years, far longer than the national average.
“That’s because we put a whole lot of effort into making the match right from the very beginning, Rossi said.
Some interesting statistics about the Rutland-based program offer an optimistic appraisal of the program:
• 98% of the program’s youth graduate from high school on time;
• 46 months is the average match length (4.6 times the national average);
• 84% of program youth are hopeful about their future;
• 94% of program youth feel that they matter to society;
• 20% percent of program youth are more likely to enroll in college as a result of being matched with a mentor.
Started in 2004, the Rutland program now has 12 employees, including three case managers who are paired with each mentor relationship and are in touch monthly, and are on a 24-7 basis if ever needed.
Mentors, Rossi said, are trained to use fun teachable moments with their youth to focus on three objectives: life skills, education, and work force development.
Being nonjudgmental is also a key mentor skill, Rossi said, adding that the most successful mentors are open-minded and willing to meet youth where they are. Patience and consistency are also key attributes for mentors, as well as being “a good listener.”
As for the time commitment, Rossi acknowledged some mentors are hesitant at first to think they can find that hour a week, but it often turns out to be a non-issue.
“One thing we encourage is for mentors to involve the youth in things they are already doing, or going to do,” Rossi said. “We all have an hour a week to contribute, and when you see the change in the youth you make, you’ll find the time because it’s so worth it.”
Since its inception 18 years ago, the Mentor Connector has served over 3,800 youth just in Rutland County. In the past year, the program has expanded to help provide services for runaway youth through a Basic Center Program that offers emergency food, shelter and clothing as well as counseling services, plus a Transitional Living Program that can provide up to two years of financial assistance while older youth learn to transition to a self-sufficient life. Youth range from ages 5-25.
For the majority of the matches, however, creating an outside connection with a mentor, broadening horizons and having fun is what it’s all about.
This summer, with the pandemic waning, the program plans to restart their bowling program, have group outdoor events and other activities that allow “everyone to feel like they’re part of a bigger program, a bigger community.”
In the end, mentoring is all about having fun and helping a youth find new hopes and dreams.
“I think we can all identify someone who made a big difference in our lives,” Rossi said, “and that’s what we try to provide. Everyone should have a mentor that helps create those memorable moments in their lives… For our part, we’ve tried to make mentoring fun and easy. And if you’re not having fun doing it, you’re doing something wrong.”
To become a mentor, visit www.TheMentorConnector.com. The basic requirements are to be 18-plus years old, have a valid driver’s license and be willing to commit to the program for a year.