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With a Little Help From a Friend

Mentors and mentees getting together for a Girls Boyz First ice cream social. Photo by Kim Smith.
“I’m a fan of kids,” says Kim Smith, the new director of Girls Boyz First. “And I have a special place in my heart for kids who struggle.” On this day, she’s wearing sneakers with bright rainbow-colored laces. It’s easy to sense that kids are also fans of Smith. In her role as the mentoring program’s director, she works to pair local kids with adult mentors. The carefully screened mentor will become another adult for a mentee to talk to, learn from, and help them pursue their individual interests. Unlike parents or caregivers, mentors aren’t there to remind kids to brush their teeth or do their homework. Instead they strive to be a friend who can provide a listening ear and offer an adult’s perspective. 

Mentoring has always enriched kids’ lives, but in 2022 it can help us address a crisis. The pandemic and resulting fallout have had a profound impact on the lives of young people. And, while some studies point out that feelings of sadness and anxiety among that population were already on the rise before the pandemic, there’s a general agreement that the crisis is real. There are reasons to believe, however, that mentorship may be a valuable strategy. 

The relationship that develops between mentor and mentee may reduce feelings of anxiety and lead to a more optimistic outlook on life. Children who have mentors become more confident, more engaged with school, and more likely to finish school. In addition, the friendship with a mentor seems to foster better relationships with parents, teachers, and peers. “Every kid needs a mentor,” says Smith. 

Setting up a mentorship is a thoughtful process. After the screening has been completed, Smith will look over her list of possible mentees, trying to create pairs that will complement each other. 

Thirteen-year-old Michelle remembers meeting her mentor, Lilly Smith. “The first thing she said to me was, ‘What kind of music do you like?’ I knew right away we had a lot in common. We’re both a little introverted. We both like music and art. I’m introducing her to some cartoons I like and she’s teaching me to play the guitar. We have a lot to talk about.” 

Mentoring can shape a child’s future as well as their present. Thirteen-year-old Justin was able to connect with Girls Boyz First with the help of his third-grade teacher. Justin also knew right away that he and his mentor, Mark Billian, would be a good match. 

“He’s a builder and I like building. I’m interested in nature just like he is. We’ve done so many cool things together, going to the Shelburne Museum, the Ham Radio Festival, and Echo. We built a fort and we do things for the community, like Green Up. Because of him, I think I might like to be an architect when I grow up. I want to be a mentor, too. I want to help kids.” Justin pauses for a few seconds and then adds, “So they can help the next generation.” 

If the lives of mentees can be enriched by the program, what do the mentors get out of it?

Bruce Prendergast has been a mentor for six years. He was recruited by the former executive director of Girls Boyz First, Wendy Freundlich. “She knew I’d raised two biracial kids and that I knew about the tailored support a biracial kid growing up in Vermont needed … I’m good with boys, and being a mentor has sharpened my skills, but it’s a heck of a lot easier than parenting where you have full responsibility. I’ve gotten a great deal of pride from seeing him grow, and he’s always happy to see me.” 

Judith began with Girls Boyz First two and a half years ago. She talks about her first meeting with her mentee, Sara, “She was a little shy, sitting off to one corner of the room but when asked, ‘Why do you want a mentor?’ she spoke right up ‘I want a friend.’” 

“In the beginning,” says Judith, “she would come to my house. We’d have snacks and go for walks. We went to the North Branch Nature Center to work on owl banding. She got to hold an owl in her hands. One time she suggested we wash my car. It was her idea!” laughs Judith. “We’ve had some great times together, although it was hard with the pandemic.” 

Sara is 13 now, a busy teenager involved with school sports of all kinds, but they still get together about once a month. “She’s been a very important part of my life,” says Judith. “I hope we’ll always keep in touch.”

Smith says that mentoring can be a one-to-one relationship or take other forms, for example, more than one mentor working with a small group. Regardless of the form, mentoring requires commitment and energy but, according to one mentor, “You’ll never regret it.” 

Girls Boyz First will soon be changing its name to Youth First Mentoring.

Editor’s note: The names of the students and some mentors were changed to protect their privacy.