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Mentors Give and Gain: Building Important Relationships

The special relationship that grows between a mentor and mentee was evident in an email teacher Katie Fuelling received from Marilyn Knowles, who mentors one of Fuelling’s students at Godwin Heights North Elementary School.

“Omigosh!  I didn’t want to leave!” Knowles wrote. “She said every time someone knocked on the classroom door today she thought it ‘might be my mentor.’ “

Knowles added that she’d circled the date on her calendar for the next session, telling Fuelling, a fourth-grade teacher who directs the school’s One Wyoming 1 on 1 mentor program, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

She’s not the only one sharing the joy of being a mentor with One Wyoming, a community-based effort to provide volunteers for students in several city school districts.

Michelle Klooster runs Club Wolverine, an afterschool program with volunteers from her church. She Alexander Albright rocks and reads during Club Wolverineloves telling the story of a girl who got help from a mentor after doing poorly on a reading test. The volunteer realized the student didn’t understand the meaning of the word “tunnel,” which was necessary to answer the questions. After the mentor explained the meaning, the student took the test again. The next day, she ran into the room to tell everybody she got 100 percent on the test.

“Sometimes, they need a little extra help,” Klooster said. “It’s not complicated. They like the special attention.”

Having someone to turn to is important because what’s happening outside the classroom affects what’s happening inside the classroom.  “With the high number of broken families today, personal problems arise that are too much to handle for an elementary student,” said Eryn Welch, a Godwin Heights math coach who also signed on as a volunteer.

North Elementary Principal Mary Lang said she’s seen “many standout stories.” Student teachers have taken on mentees after finishing their teaching stints.  Former employees have come back to work with students. “One mentor signed up for one student and ended up mentoring him along with three of his brothers that tend to show up during their time,” Lang said.

Finding More Mentors

One Wyoming 1 on 1 started earlier this school year as an effort to get mentors for 10 percent of the students in the Wyoming area. The volunteers were required to give their mentee one hour a week for a year. Reaching the 10 percent goal would have meant finding 1,100 mentors from schools, businesses, parents, grandparents, churches and community leaders in the Godwin Heights, Godfrey-Lee, Kelloggsville and Wyoming school districts.

Combined with other volunteer agencies such as Kids Hope, Compassion This Way and United Way, the number of Wyoming area volunteers has topped 500. Godwin Heights has had about 75 volunteers sign up; Wyoming Public Schools, 85; Kelloggsville, 35; and Godfrey-Lee, which has a partnership with Grace Bible College, 105.

Godwin Heights Superintendent Bill Fetterhoff said even though One Wyoming 1 on 1 wasn’t able to reach its goal, he thinks what it has accomplished in the first year makes it a great success.

“I think part of the success of it is not only with those we’ve been able to match with mentors, but the potential mentors that are coming in, and the connections we’ve made and the awareness we’ve made with businesses,” Fetterhoff said. “It’s still so much in its infancy. It’s got huge potential to support our students.”

At a meeting earlier this year to recruit more volunteers, the food distribution company SpartanNash committed to providing additional support next year, said Jack Ponstine, One Wyoming 1 on 1 executive director. “It’s been amazing,” he said. “This has been a great community collaboration.”

Eryn Welch shows the chart that encourages her mentee to do well in and out of classHow Ravioli and Tunnels Fit In

When Jayden, a student whose last name teachers asked not be used, sees Eryn Welch, a big smile crosses his face. The kindergartener spends 20 minutes three times a week with her during the school day. It might not sound like much time, said the Godwin Heights North Elementary math interventionist and mentor, but she can see that it’s making difference.

“It’s nice to talk to someone at school, but not about school,” Welch said. “I feel I can get him back on track sooner.”

Welch treats Jayden like her little brother during their time together, building Lego creations, making Christmas gifts for his family and simply talking to him. She took him to his first high school basketball game this year.

A multi-colored, six-foot long behavior poster charts how Jayden is doing in and out of class. “I like pink,” said Jayden of the highest level on the chart. When he hits that level, Welch treats him to his favorite lunch – ravioli.

Welch is one of 20 mentors at the school who are part of One Wyoming 1 on 1. She said what she does is part of a team effort. Other teachers let her know when Jayden seems like he’s having a tough day and she can pull him aside to talk. Recently, he told her he was having a rough day because he missed his mom. After Welch talked to him about it, he was back to his usual self.

“She’s made a special point to get to know him,” kindergarten teacher Holly Vostad said of Welch, adding she provides Jayden with someone who can be trusted not to let him down. When Welch was home sick one day and couldn’t meet with him, Vostad let him read the email Welch sent to assure him she was sick.

Welch doesn’t think her volunteering is a big deal or worth being in the spotlight. Others have come back year after year and keep in touch with their mentees, something she wants to do with Jayden.

A Group Effort

Michelle Klooster is one of about 10 members of the Club Wolverine program run by Community Christian Reformed Church about a half-mile from the school. It’s one of about 70 churches collaborating with One Wyoming 1 on 1. Pastor David Struyk said grants have come from Community Ministries of Wyoming and a group of regional churches to help provide resources for the program. He sees it as filling a need for the school and community. “We’re always trying to make an impact, especially with kids,” Struyk said.

North Elementary student teachers help with Club Wolverine, which meets four times a week at a school classroom. Students get a snack, help with their homework, reading and writing, and take a short break outside. In the fall, the church supplies students with backpacks and other school supplies. They do all this even though they have only about 200 members.

“It’s a challenge when you have limited resources,” Struyk conceded, “but it doesn’t take a big group to do a lot.”


One Wyoming 1 on 1


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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


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