Mentor Program Empowers Students and Adults Alike

Gay Van Otteren levels his 85-year-old eyes directly at you and then says this:

“The greatest gift that you can give to one another is your rapt attention to their very existence.”

The room grows quiet.

Heads nod in agreement.

And the beautiful moment passes overhead like a slow-moving zeppelin.

With just a few words, Gay Van Otteren has conveyed the very essence of what’s known as the Northview Mentor Program, a thriving initiative that courses through the Northview schools and larger community.

It’s nothing less than a series of life-changing events, symbiotic relationships blooming and flourishing that have affected thousands of Northview students and their adult mentors since the program was instituted a decade ago.

And while not a required element of the formal education process, maybe it ought to be, judging from the net results it renders in the form of kids soaring.

Program Director Janine Conway

For Gay Van Otteren, it’s a way to influence the life of RandallSuarez, a sophomore at Northview High School.

“I really like being with my mentor,” says Randall. “I don’t have to keep any blocks up, or lie. I have full trust in him. And he’s become something of a father figure to me as well.”

“I’ll always have a somebody,” adds Tarena Van Dyke, 18, a senior at Northview High School.

“No matter what, she’s always a phone call away.”

“She,” in this case, is Tarena’s mentor, Coral Rutowski, who works in the Grand Rapids area as a nurse.

Coral takes just 15 minutes out of her week to spend time with Tarena, and it’s 15 minutes that both have come to cherish.

“Those 15 minutes – even if you’re from different backgrounds, different homes lives – can change the world,” says Coral.

“One thing is certain: We all desire to be loved.”

Though the word “love” doesn’t appear in the official brochure that outlines the program, it’s a warm fuzzy that often surfaces between mentor and mentee – and nobody’s complaining.

“Virtually anyone can become a mentor,“ says the program’s director, Janine Conway, a Northview district mother and activist who volunteers countless hours weekly toward the project.

“You can do it on your way to work, on your lunch hour, whatever. It’s definitely doable.”

Before the program formally existed, a pair of Northview administrators targeted some two dozen “at risk” students and divided their time among them. “But that’s a big chunk of time for two educators,” Janine recalls, so she proposed to school officials a system that also relied on community members at large.

The first brochure advertised a need for 25 mentors for “at risk” kids, and within six months, 60 mentors had stepped forward.

As the program matured, “we took the words ‘at risk’ out of the equation because, to be honest, every junior high kid is at risk for something,” says Janine.

Today, the program boasts more than 100 mentors who take the time to listen to more than 120 kids in grades 5 through 12, a ratio that reflects how some mentors actually donate their services to two students weekly.

About half the students hail from the high school, with a dozen or so enrolled at Highlands Middle and just under 50 at Crossroads Middle.

The program operates only during the school year calendar, and it relies on mentors living not only within the Northview district, but neighboring communities like Grand Rapids, Sparta, Rockford.

The program doesn’t operate in a vacuum; feedback is constantly analyzed to discern if and how it’s best working.

One of those touchstones is reflected in the fact that for two years in a row – 2011 and 2012 – a Northview High School student was named recipient of the Lloyd Carr MVP Mentoring Award, so named for the legendary University of Michigan football coach.

Senior Tarena Van Dyke, right, with mentor Coral RutowskiThe program also has the imprimatur of the district’s superintendent, who’s not only a fan, but participant: “Every child needs at least seven champions in their lives to increase the likeliness of success in school,” opines Northview Superintendent Mike Paskiewicz. “A 15-minute-per-week commitment allows you to be one of the champions for a student.”

Mike is paired weekly with sophomore Connor Wood, and to watch them interact is to witness a twosome connected on varying levels. And why not; they’ve been together since Conner was in the 5th grade.

“He’s been like a father figure to me,” says Connor. “We can talk about anything. And I think that’s how our friendship and bond has been kept alive, through honest communication; from video games to hunting and fishing and school and more.”

Nate Thornton serves as business manager at nearby Gill Industries, but he makes time to mentor as well.

He’s so sold on the program, that he’s cheerleaded it before co-workers, enticing a half-dozen or so to sign up alongside him.

Which delights the program’s director: “Our mentors are our best recruiters,” says Janine.

“The mentors get more out of it than the students themselves,” Nate says. “When I meet with my mentee and build rapport, I do really feel as though when I leave there it’s in a better place. I definitely leave them feeling better about the day.”

Northview High Principal Mark Thomas concurs: “This program is as empowering for the adults as it is for the kids,” he says.

For Tarena, having a mentor has helped her to view school as a stepping stone rather than a hurdle.

“In 6th grade, I would fake sick every day. But when I started in the mentor program, I started to see school as something to look forward to.”

She glances toward her mentor Coral, and smiles. “And tomorrow, I get to see her again.” 

FAQ About The Northview Mentor Program:

What is the goal of the program?
To match as many students as possible with an adult mentor.

What is its purpose?
For students to have one more caring adult in their life.

How much time is required?
Students meet with their mentor for 15 minutes weekly during the school year.

What can be done in 15 minutes?
This program is not to tutor or counsel students, but to provide an additional, caring supportive adults relationship for the student. You will be surprised at how beneficial 15 minutes can be – to both you and the student.

May I pick the time I mentor?
Absolutely! Tell us what time you are available, and we will match you with a student.

Do the teachers allow students to miss class for mentoring?
Yes, teachers and staff supported the Mentor Program from the very beginning and appreciate the difference it’s made in their buildings.

May I take the student off campus?
No. However, there are places available in the school to meet.

What if I can’t meet every week?
We ask you to do your very best to be committed to every week. We would like the student to count on your availability.

Will I be adequately trained?
There is a 1-hour mandatory training sessions before you begin. You may also call at at any time with concerns.

Do I have to be a Northview parent?
Absolutely not. We have grandparents, parents, local businessmen and women, and other community members involved.

How do I volunteer or obtain more information?
E-mail Janine Conway at: jconway@nvps.net

Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary. Read Tom's full bio

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