LMS mentors already making a difference

  • Published in Local News

LACONIA — If proponents of the new mentoring program at Laconia Middle School are correct, students who are paired with adult volunteer mentors will be less likely to engage in unhealthy activities and more likely to find academic success in the years to come. Since the program has only been in operation since January, it's too early to tell if those predictions will prove accurate.

For the nearly 20 pairs of students and mentors, though, the benefits of the program are already ...

LACONIA — If proponents of the new mentoring program at Laconia Middle School are correct, students who are paired with adult volunteer mentors will be less likely to engage in unhealthy activities and more likely to find academic success in the years to come. Since the program has only been in operation since January, it's too early to tell if those predictions will prove accurate.

For the nearly 20 pairs of students and mentors, though, the benefits of the program are already apparent.

"Every kid benefits when a caring adult interacts with them on a regular basis," said Jim McCollum, Middle School principal.

The idea to start a mentoring program had been bandied about the district for years, and on some occasions there have been unsuccessful attempts at getting a program off the ground. In 2010, for example, the LifeBridge program, based in Wolfeboro, received short-lived permission to operate in Laconia, but saw that permission revoked when community members objected to the organization's policy of only allowing Christian, heterosexual adults to be mentors.

"The idea never died – the people participating never gave up," McCollum said. Instead, those hoping to connect mentors with middle school students brought the idea to the Better Together organization, where the idea was molded into a plan.

With retired educator Sandra McLaughlin coordinating, the first group of mentors was background-checked and trained in January. There are now 17 students that see their mentor for an hour each week after school.

The mentors are asked to commit to that time for the duration of the school year, though the concept is to match mentors with students in the sixth grade and continue the relationship through high school. The meetings are only permitted to occur on school grounds. For this year, mentoring pairs are allowed to sign up for activities offered through the Twist program of afterschool activities.

When mentors become available, McLaughlin works with guidance counselor Virginia Babcock to identify a student who would be a good match for that particular adult. "A majority of kids would benefit from the program," said Babcock. She explained that parents are typically put off by the proposal, at least initially, drawing the conclusion that there's some sort of deficit in their parenting. However, she explains that most adolescents, including those with dedicated parents, could benefit from a mentoring relationship.

"This is not a therapeutic program, there's nothing wrong with the kid," said Babcock. "This is an ability for us to create opportunities for the kids... It's very powerful for them to have an adult who, every week, drops everything and comes down here to pay attention to them."

Mentors who have signed up for the program have brought with them a variety of backgrounds. Some are retired educators or parents of grown children, others have no experience with kids. They range in age from 24 to 82 and come from many different walks of life. The only thing they have in common is a commitment to invest an hour each week into the life of a child.

Next year, the plan is for most mentoring pairs to continue their arrangement into the seventh grade, and for a new batch of mentors to begin working with sixth graders. Each year, that process will repeat until there are about 20 adult-student pairs in each grade from sixth to 12th. Adults interested in joining the program are asked to call McLaughlin at 528-2324.

Lacey Sylvester was among the first students to be paired with a mentor. "At first I didn't want to do it, then I started doing it and it was fun. I got to do something after school instead of just going home; also, she's a fun person to be around."

In mentor Jeanne Lavin, Sylvester has found a confidante, someone who encourages her artistic talents while listening to what's going on in her life. Unlike a peer, Lavin won't tease or spread gossip. Sylvester also enjoys that her mentor won't punish or judge her if she feels like making a confession. "With a parent, they have power over you, same with a teacher. With her, she can just listen."

Max White, a chatty boy who's quick with a joke, also enjoys the time he spends with Robert Richardson, a grandfather and retired pipe fitter. "It's fun. I don't really have anything to do when I get home, anyway." He likes how the mentoring provides him respite from his younger siblings. "My brother and sister drive me up walls."

White and Richardson pursue various activities in their time together. They can be found making art projects, playing on the library's computers or building model cars. Richardson wants to help White identify a career or discipline that suits his interests and abilities. White, after a few model-making sessions, said, "I can't wait until I get a job so I can get a Corvette."

Richardson said the benefits of the program flow both ways. "For me, it's loads of fun," he said. "The good thing is, I've told him I'm with him no matter what. I think any child, especially at this age, should have a mentor, someone they can talk to and trust."

CAPTION with MENTORING in AA:

Max White, Laconia Middle School sixth grader, tells mentor Robert Richardson about the high-tech tree house he was drawing. The mentoring program is new this year and is already seen as a success by its participants. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)