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'It's all about connectivity'

Mentoring program brings kids and adults together

STERLING – Corey Barnes burst through the doors and dropped his backpack.

Susan Boyd put her hand on his shoulder and asked about his day.

Barnes, 9, a third-grader at Lincoln Elementary School, and Boyd, his mentor and the director of Sterling Main Street, acted like old friends – not quite like a mother and son, or even an aunt and nephew, just more like friends.

The pair have been matched together since the start of the second semester of school, when the Sterling schools launched an in-house mentoring program for kindergartners through eighth-graders.

More than 30 mentoring pairs, or matches, gathered Thursday afternoon at Wesley United Methodist Church for an end-of-the-year celebration.

Boyd enjoys making a difference in Corey's life.

"We just chat about everyday life or play games," she said. "He looks forward to it [our meetings], and I do, too. ... I'm not sure if I made a real difference, but I feel like I did."

Corey, whose parents are divorced, likes having Boyd's care and attention.

"It's fun," he said. "She doesn't yell or get mad. She just lets me talk or play games."

The school district has had a relationship with Big Brothers Big Sisters for years, but the program had the most presence at Lincoln Elementary School and was cost-prohibitive to expand to other buildings, said Jerry Binder, human resources director and organizer of the new mentoring program.

"We're not reaching enough kids," Binder said. "We knew we could – we had the kids, we just needed to find the adults.

"It's all about connectivity, all about kids connecting to adults. We believe we lose kids when we lose that connection with them ... or when those connections go in the wrong direction."

Guidance counselors at the four elementary schools and the middle school identified students who could benefit from a relationship with an adult. They selected students whose parents both work, who come from single-parent homes or who just might need another adult to offer them encouragement.

Binder and co-organizers Janet Freed, the parent asset coordinator for the elementary and middle schools, and Ken Burn, a juvenile supervisor for Whiteside County Court Services, recruited adults. They sought people within the schools, as well as people from faith-based organizations, community groups and even businesses.

The matches have met about once a week, over the lunch hour, at school.

The mentors and mentees eat lunch together, talk – about school, about home life, about whatever – and play games, do crafts or work on asset development through activities.

The mentoring relationships have made an impact on the students, said Carly Rodriguez, a counselor at Lincoln Elementary School.

"The kids ask all the time: 'Is so-and-so coming today?'" she said. "They know it's their scheduled day, and they look forward to that time.

"It's positive, one-on-one attention – even if it's just 40 minutes of someone eating lunch with them. The kids love that."

The relationships perhaps have made a bigger impact on the adults, though, Binder said.

"The mentors want to spend more time with their mentees," he said. "They are asking if they can work with them over the summer.

But those are really good problems to have."

Nancy Pitsch, a preschool teacher at the YWCA of the Sauk Valley, mentors a kindergarten girl who comes from a single-parent home and is the oldest of four children.

"I let her talk. I let her lead," she said. "It's her own place and time to have someone loving on her, caring about her ... and to just be herself."

Organizers hope the relationships continue for years to come, so students have an adult to rely on all through their schooling. Many of the mentors already have unofficially signed on for the coming years.

Pitsch is one of them.

"There's a lot of value in that continuity," she said. "I don't see it as a commitment. I see it as an investment."

Organizers also hope to grow the program to have 20 matches at every school, including, eventually, the high school.

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