Mentor program helps boost Red Wing kids’ confidence

September 23, 2018

RED WING — Angel Griggs smiles when she talks about her mentor, Kristin Bray.

That wasn’t always the case. But a “failed” test and a request from her grandmother changed the relationship, thanks to Red Wing Youth Outreach and its mentoring program.

“It lets me realize there are good things about me,” Angel said about the program. “Definitely, it’s a really big help to me. I tell my friends, ‘Hey, this is a really great program, you should try it.’”

Still, when her grandmother suggested she take part in a new mentoring program offered through Every Hand Joined, a youth outreach organization, Angel, a 17-year-old junior at Red Wing High School, was skeptical at first.

“I didn’t want to do it because she thought it was just another way for adults to keep track of my grades and school life, and that was very annoying to me,” Angel said.

What she found instead was a program designed to bring a caring adult into her life, someone she could talk to, learn from and develop a relationship with.

“Our goal is to increase the number of caring adults in youths’ lives,” said Mandy Arden, director of the youth outreach program.

A need for mentors

Multiple studies, she said, show that youths who can name at least five caring adults in their lives have more success in school and have better social and emotional skills. But the kids in the Red Wing mentoring program — now in its second year — don’t have that level of adult support in their lives, and they don’t feel as connected to their community.

That, Arden said, is part of the reason this model of mentoring program was selected. The program is in the schools, supported by employers who pay for their employees’ time off to attend twice-monthly meetings and supports economic development in the city.

“It’s good for kids to see there are employers who care in our community,” she said.

So far, Arden said, the early results from the program have been encouraging. Students involved in the program have seen the number of discipline referrals at school go down, while both GPA and attendance for those students has gone up.

The number of students involved in the program also is on the rise.

“We have 27 students at the middle school and 45 students at the high school,” she said, adding that the program was extended to middle school students in its second year. In the program’s first year, there were just 41 students involved.

The number of volunteer mentors has increased in Year 2 as well.

“We recruited 17 mentors in the first year from Red Wing Shoes,” she said. “We’ve got another nine this year from them.”

While anyone can be a volunteer mentor, the program recruits from area businesses with Red Wing Shoes, Xcel Energy, the city of Red Wing and Discovery Financial contributing multiple mentors. That support is important, she said, because when mentors need time off to attend mentoring sessions at the schools, the employers give them the time away from work and pay them for their volunteer work.

From bad to good

Angel said when she first discovered she’d been paired with Bray, whom she’d had as a teacher at Red Wing High School, she was less than thrilled.

“We weren’t really on the best of terms,” she said, laughing.

“The last time I had her in class, she was in a really rough spot with friends,” Bray added.

But a survey Angel had taken as part of Every Hand Joined showed she “failed” both with regard to her own happiness and how she felt connected and supported by the community. So, in spite of her previous relationship with Bray, she agreed to give it a try.

As easily as they banter with one another, it takes time to build a relationship. Now in their second year as mentor and mentee, they’ve met outside the program for ice cream, and they talk at school almost every day.

In fact, during the summer when most of her friends forgot her birthday, Angel said, it was Bray who lifted her spirits.

“It saved my birthday,” the teen said. “To have someone who isn’t my friend, well, she is my friend, but someone who’s not my age, that said a lot.”

Building a relationship

Arden said the program isn’t designed to force mentors and teens to become instant buddies, but to develop relationships over time.

“We tell them this is not a one-year commitment; it’s a lifelong commitment,” Arden said. “And we lose mentors on this.”

The program brings mentors and mentees together at the school twice per month for activities around a structured curriculum designed to get the pairs talking and developing that relationship and trust.

There also are planned activities outside of school. Last year, mentors and mentees — along with their families — met at a Thanksgiving meal. There was an event at the Red Wing YMCA. And the pairs exchange contact information, including contact information with the mentee’s parents or guardians.

Counting on connections

Each pair takes its own time, Arden said.

Cody Callstrom, a junior at Red Wing High School, said he already knew his mentor, Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman, from church. But the pair haven’t spent a lot of time talking or meeting outside the program at this point.

“We don’t do anything outside of the sessions other than see each other at church and texting,” Callstrom said. “But when they just told me Roger would be my mentor, and I thought that’d be pretty cool.”

Pohlman likes the interaction he gets with the younger generation that’s on a positive note. While the struggles today’s teens have can be different than what he went through as a teen, some things never change.

“As adults, we know what we went through when we were that age, but times have changed,” Pohlman said. “For me, it’s eye opening to get their perspective on what their struggles are.”

Samuel Lewis, a RWHS sophomore, said he found out he was getting a mentor when his mother told him she’d signed him up for the program.

“I stuck with it because I met Dave, and he’s awesome,” Samuel said.

Samuel and his mentor, Dave Gratz, have been together for a year and are hoping to start connecting beyond the structured meetings of the program.

“We were just talking about spending more time texting or talking,” Gratz said.

Gratz said he got involved with the program through his employer, Red Wing Shoe, but it was thoughts of his own son that pushed him to volunteer.

“He would have benefitted from this,” Gratz said. “So, when they rolled it out at work, I thought I’d pay it forward.”

He enjoys the idea that, through getting to know Samuel, he’s helping guide someone through his teen years and into adulthood.

That, Arden said, is the ultimate goal of the mentorship program.

“This is what making a connection with another human being is all about,” she said. “I tell them I want them to be at their (mentee’s) wedding some day.”

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