Every Monday afternoon Jared Duggan, an accounting major at the University of Maine, heads to Leonard Middle School in Old Town to meet one of his close friends — a sixth-grader named Matt.
When Jared arrives, the two head outside to play basketball, even though it’s winter. It’s the pair’s normal routine, regardless of the weather.
Meanwhile, at the Old Town Recreation Department, Jared’s sister Emily Duggan, a sophomore elementary education major at UMaine, sits with Keely, a fifth-grader. They’re making friendship bracelets while they talk about friends and school.
This is the second year the Duggans of Buxton, Maine, have participated in UMaine’s Black Bear Mentor Program. The program is offered through the Bodwell Center for Service and Volunteerism and is run by an AmeriCorps VISTA. More than 80 UMaine students are currently participating, making the program’s 11th year the largest.
The Black Bear Mentors meet with third- to eighth-grade students once a week after school at Dr. Lewis S. Libby School in Milford, Old Town Elementary School, Leonard Middle School in Old Town and the Old Town Recreation Department. The mentors work with students on activities such as sports, arts and crafts, homework, board games, and community service projects.
“I think the end goal is to try to get the students interested in pursuing education,” said Jared, who is in his junior year at UMaine, of the program. “We know what we’ve done to get to college so we can pass that on to kids to try to get them to have the same habits so they can hopefully go to college, too.”
The siblings, who live together, joined the program at the same time last year.
“Jared and I have always gotten along really well because we are the only two children in our family and because we’re so close in age. We don’t argue very often but when we do, we usually get over it pretty quickly,” Emily said, adding she and her brother also like attending UMaine hockey and basketball games together.
Black Bear Mentors, who come from a variety of majors, are interviewed and undergo background checks before training begins. They are paired with a student based on similar interests and mentor them in weekly 90-minute sessions for the entire academic year.
Returning mentors have the option to mentor the same child, if the child wants the same mentor. Emily and Jared are now on the second year of mentoring their original students.
“When I first met Keely she was pretty shy,” said Emily. “I’m shy, too, so we were pretty similar. But now she talks all the time and asks me for advice, which is cool.”
She says advising Keely has helped both of them open up and has helped her learn how to solve problems and give the best advice without being involved. They also likes to do homework, play board games or make arts and crafts. Jared and Matt spend most of their time outdoors throwing a football or playing basketball.
“While we’re outside, we’ll play with the other kids to work on teamwork,” Jared said. “I also push him to do homework so he can play sports for school teams.”
Jared says Matt was outgoing from the moment they met, and the two bonded quickly, becoming fast friends. Since Jared has known Matt, he has become more comfortable sharing personal stories.
The Duggans agree that the best part of being involved in the program has been reuniting with their students after summer break and seeing the excitement on their faces. The experience, he says, was the same for all the returning mentors.
“The kids just run right to their mentors,” he said. “You can tell how much they mean to the kids.”
Emily knows Keely enjoys taking part in the program by the reactions she gets from other students when she visits.
“I imagine she tells her friends about it because when I go to Old Town Rec, they always say, ‘Oh, you’re Keely’s mentor,’” she said. “They all want a mentor.”
In November, the Black Bear Mentors hosted their students for the group’s annual scavenger hunt on the UMaine campus.
“It wasn’t a typical scavenger hunt,” Emily said. “The goal was to show them places on campus and see what they’re interested in.”
The group plans to have the students visit again to do activities such as rock climbing or touring the football field.
“I’m excited for them to come back,” Jared says. “It’s always fun when they’re on the campus.”