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Community mentors help eighth-graders cope with stress, handle classes and think about college

Sessions support Challenge Scholars initiative

Eighth-grader Iyana Baldwin sat across a library table from Zahna Woodson and told her what was on her mind: bitter disappointment about her basketball team’s tournament loss.

“That game, it didn’t even feel like a game,” said Iyana, a multi-sport athlete at Westwood Middle School. “It didn’t seem like we was serious.”

“I see, I see, I see,” Woodson said sympathetically. “That’s very upsetting.”

Woodson was spending an hour with Iyana and her classmate, Danika Shaw, fueled by bags of popcorn. As one of three dozen community mentors meeting with all Westwood eighth-graders that day, Woodson probed what stresses her students were feeling — which for Iyana definitely included the basketball loss. But Woodson also asked about their grades, their plans for high school and thoughts on college and career.

“Is there anything you’re doing in school now that you think you could have a job from or go to college for?” asked Woodson, an operations employee of the C.H. Robinson logistics company.

“I could be an actor,” Iyana said with a laugh. “I’m serious, I could be an actor.”

“That is real,” Woodson said encouragingly. “There are so many really good programs. My brother is really into producing and directing, and he wants to be an actor,” adding that he is studying at Western Michigan University.

Encouraging students to think ahead, while also supporting them in their day-to-day struggles, is at the root of the mentoring program Westwood launched this school year. Volunteers from businesses, churches and nonprofits met monthly with students, mixing attentive listening and occasional advice with games and laid-back conversation.

For mentors like Woodson, it’s an enriching interaction with young lives.

“I have awesome girls,” she said. “I have an idea of where the conversation is going to go, and it never does. They make me think of things so much differently.”

Lots of Listening

Patterned after a similar program at Innovation Central High School, the mentoring aims to help about 100 eighth-graders with their academic and social issues, said Principal Dennis Branson. It’s overseen by Rebecca Back, Westwood’s coordinator of college and career readiness under the Challenge Scholars program, which provides full college tuition for Westwood and Harrison Park students who graduate from Union High School with good grades and attendance.

Mentors remind students about Challenge Scholars, its requirements and huge benefits to help them think ahead, Back said. Emphasizing goal-setting, organization and relationships is key. So is helping students get through the difficulties of adolescent stress.

“Especially with the population we serve, a lot of them have a lot of stress that’s outside of school, a lot of home-life stress,” Back said. “So it’s so good to have somebody from the community that believes in our kids, to come alongside and just be a support.”

Mentor Tom Bradley, a pastor at CrossWinds Church, said a lot of what he does is just listen in his monthly get-togethers with students.

“I think it opens up a chance for them to talk to another adult that’s not an adult they’re responsible to, someone that they’re reporting to,” Bradley said. “They don’t owe me anything. I’m just being a friend.”

One Wednesday morning earlier this semester, he played Battleship with Gerald Davis, Lashawn McCoy and Jacob Kanady. Nearby, Adnoris “Bo” Torres played Uno with Druey Lyon, Sergio Arroyo and Deon Farr. A fatherhood coordinator for Strong Beginnings, which supports black and Latino families during pregnancy and early childhood, Torres said he talks to students about making choices, their education and “what a good relationship looks like.”

Sergio, a Challenge Scholar, said Torres gets him thinking ahead to high school and college. “It’s been helping me with my grades, with my relationships,” he said. “We’ve talked about how I can make a relationship better.”

“It helps because I think about further goals, and what to do when I grow up,” eighth-grader Danika Shaw says of her mentoring sessions

Always Available

Back in the library, Zahna Woodson talked to Iyana and Danika about how they handle stressful moments, and what subjects they were nervous about come high school.

“So if you’re having problems with your math class once you start ninth grade, do you know who you would reach out to?” she asked.

“My sister,” Danika said.

“You know you could always call me up and I’d be like, ‘I’m not good at math but let me find somebody,’” Woodson said, with a laugh.


The benefits of a mentoring program in middle school

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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