OKLAHOMA CITY (April 10, 2014) – This week marks National Volunteer Week, which honors the countless people across the nation who offer their time, skill and compassion to help others in need.
When it comes to volunteering to help children, one of the most effective ways to make a big impression is to mentor.
“A mentorship program can have a strong and immediate impact for a school. Especially for a struggling student, a mentor can truly be a positive role model and friend. It’s such a rewarding way to give back,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi.
Mentoring programs come in many varieties. One school that benefits from mentors is Stanley Hupfeld Academy at Western Village in Oklahoma City.
For an hour each week, Stanley Hupfeld visits the elementary school that bears his name to hang out with a boy he mentors. Next year, Hupfeld wants to start teaching him chess, but, for now, they play checkers and talk about geography.
“I’ve often said it’s the best hour I spend all week,” said Hupfeld, former president and CEO of INTEGRIS Health.
Mentors started coming to the school more than a decade ago, back when it was still called Western Village Elementary. Today, it has more than 300 mentors. They are community members with all kinds of backgrounds. Some are older students, and about a third work for INTEGRIS.
“Our goal is to have a mentor for every student in Stanley Hupfeld Academy,” said Academy director Tobi Campbell.
Oklahoma has more than 100 mentoring and leadership programs, according to the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence. The OFE helps establish mentoring programs in schools statewide through its David and Molly Boren Mentoring Initiative.
Mentors provide a stable source of support for students who might not get that at home. They can tutor kids who need academic help, or they can lend a sympathetic ear. By simply visiting with a child for an hour a week, mentors leave a lasting and positive impression.
Bernard Jones, who works with prosthetics at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, is in his eighth year as a mentor at Stanley Hupfeld Academy. He admits he was skeptical when he first heard about the program, afraid it would amount to babysitting.
It didn’t take long to change his mind.
“It’s something I look forward to every week. The kids look forward to seeing me every week,” Jones said.
The program at Stanley Hupfeld Academy is one branch of the Positive Directions mentoring program, which INTEGRIS operates in communities with its hospitals. Each mentor is matched to a single student whom he or she hopefully will stick with until that student graduates to the next school.
What to do with the weekly hour is up to mentors and mentees. Jones said the first 30 minutes of his sessions typically are devoted to study time, but he leaves at least 15 minutes to play games or talk.
“As they get to know you, they get a little looser and start to share their life stories with you,” he said.
Mentoring programs in Oklahoma have been started at all levels of schools by a range of organizations, including colleges, churches, nonprofits and businesses.
In Tulsa's Kendall-Whittier Elementary School, roughly 70 students stay until 6 p.m. every weekday to spend time with their mentors. The youth mentoring program was launched off-site by a neighborhood nonprofit in 2003. Several years ago, it became part of the University of Tulsa's True Blue Neighbors initiative and was moved into the school building with help from the George Kaiser Family Foundation.
"We've really seen tremendous growth in our ability to serve students and parents in this neighborhood," said director Danielle Hovenga.
Although the program is free, participants must apply to join. Every kid gets a healthy after-school snack, takes a break for playtime and spends an hour working on academics with a mentor. Half of that hour is spent on literacy, Hovenga said.
Mentors come from across the community and many are associated with the university, she said. Some faculty and staff volunteer, and students can use it as a work-study job or for academic credit in some classes.
Being able to operate the mentoring program from inside the building has led to better coordination with teachers, and the school staff gets to see the mentoring program in action, Hovenga said.
Beverly Woodrome, director of the mentoring initiative at OFE, said there are too many kinds of successful mentoring initiatives around the state to suggest one model is better than others. In one town, a mentoring program was begun by a local banker who simply recognized a need. In bigger cities, large corporations sometimes hire staff solely to run their mentoring programs.
There is one basic ingredient both Woodrome and Hupfeld cited; both the school and the mentoring organization need to be dedicated to the program and provide designated leaders on both ends.
Mentors range from top-level executives to school custodians. The more careers and backgrounds represented, the better, Woodrome said.
“I think sometimes we overlook people who could be inspirational,” she said.