OLD TOWN, Maine — Yahtzee and playground games were just a few things on the agenda this week for a group of Old Town Elementary School students participating in the University of Maine’s Black Bear Mentoring Program.
“Basically I can’t stop talking about this all week. I tell all my friends about it,” said Abby Montieth, 11, a fifth-grader at the school and a participant in the program. “It’s awesome fun and Wednesdays are my favorite days.”
The program, which is provided by UMaine’s Bodwell Center for Service and Volunteerism, is in its seventh year. It pairs UM students with area schoolchildren in one-on-one activity sessions once a week on either Monday or Wednesday afternoons. The sessions take place at local schools under the supervision of a site coordinator, but the mentors and the children they work with decide what games to play or any other way to spend their hour and a half together.
According to the program’s coordinator, Erin Lennon, Black Bear Mentoring focuses on academics and aims to improve the social skills of children who participate, in addition to providing them with a support system and a responsible adult friend.
“Many of our kids come from homes where the parents might not be there all the time or they may not have supportive siblings,” said Lennon. Regardless of the situation in the home, “we’re dealing with kids who are at an age when — for whatever reason — they can start going down the wrong path.”
The mentors serve children in grades two through eight, and the primary goal of the program is to steer them in the right direction. Lennon and graduate assistant Andrew Loring, also an on-site supervisor, said the social skills children learn in the program are designed to help them to feel relaxed with their surroundings, to succeed in school and to have a better future.
“Historically, mentoring is meant for children to live up to their full potential, to go to college and consider higher education. Usually this leads to better pay and a better lifestyle,” said Loring. “Many of the kids will be first-generation college students, and if mentors have a hand in that, it really benefits everyone and helps to bring the program full circle.”
The program runs from September to May, coinciding with the fall and spring semesters at UM. College students who wish to be mentors must apply at the beginning of the fall semester, then await a national and statewide background check with the Department of Health and Human Services. After this process is complete, applicants are paired with children based on similar interests and temperaments.
Lennon said children participating in the program come from all backgrounds, and many are referred to the program by school officials such as guidance counselors.
“We don’t really know why kids have been referred to us. Typically they’ve had problems in the past and all they need is a little guidance,” Lennon said.
Lennon and Loring said the program has gained popularity over the years. This year, there are 50 mentors and 50 children, up from an average of 20 matches in recent years, according to Loring.
In addition to one-on-one sessions, the Black Bear Mentoring Program conducts group activities that allow the children to take part in community service projects. Last week, the mentors and children made blankets for cancer patients at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. And in months past, they have written letters to soldiers in Afghanistan and made sandwiches for Crossroads Ministries, a local food pantry.
“The kids are really interested in doing service projects, which we feel is important because the mentors are doing a service with this program,” said Lennon. “I think it really empowers the kids to make a difference in another person’s life.”
On Wednesday, three groups of mentors and children participated in the activities at Old Town Elementary. Each pair played board and computer games. Kelli Gile, 21, a UM social work major, and her partner, Keaton Michael, 9, a fourth-grader at Old Town Elementary, challenged each other in a trivia game while they ate snacks and others watched them, smiling and laughing.
“My favorite part is getting to see her every day and playing with a big kid,” said Michael. “We play a lot of games and I usually beat her, but today she’s winning.”
“This is so important, for people to spend time with kids like this,” said Kalie Hess, 21, who studies anthropology at UM. “Not only that, but it’s fun, and as a mentor you get to see the positive role you’re playing in the kids’ lives. I plan on doing this again next year.”