15 minutes, once a week can make a big difference

Mentor program ‘a commitment of love more than time’

Eighth-grader Anaiya Sims, left, with mentor Grace Krup

Anaiya Sims flipped through a few stapled pages of daily assessments from her teachers that had to do with being on time to class, completing homework and being respectful. The assessments not only included check marks in the affirmative, but also stars and words of encouragement such as “woot woot!” and “We are proud of you!”

“If I had to have this filled out last year, all of these would have been ‘nos,’ said Anaiya, an eighth-grader at Crossroads Middle School. “I’ve grown a lot.”

Anaiya and her older sister have lived with their grandparents ever since their mother died four years ago. Staying positive and focused on school hasn’t been easy, she said.

So what’s changed?

Anaiya has been paired with a mentor she gets along with, and realizes now that adults at school “want me to succeed,” said the teen, who is eyeing a career as a rap artist. “And in order to do that, I have to follow through. I have to graduate.

“I used to always think everything was so bad,” Anaiya said. “Now, I look at the happiness instead of the negative.”

15 Minutes, Once a Week

The Northview Mentor Program got its start 13 years ago when Janine Conway went to one district principal in hopes of brainstorming ways adults could make a positive impact on middle school students.

“I don’t know if anyone has said middle school was the best time in their lives,” Conway said. “My daughter made it through just fine, but she had a huge support system that helped her. Not all of our kids do.”

It just so happened that the principal and his assistant principal were in the process of trying to meet for 15 minutes every week with the 25 students they had identified as the most at risk of being unengaged academically, socially or otherwise.

“If you do the math, that’s a huge chunk out of an administrator’s time,” Conway said. “I said ‘How about if we get 25 adults to check in with one student for those 15 minutes, someone who cares about them and will check in on them?’ Within six months we had 60 community members signed up, wanting to help.”

Eighth-grader Anaiya Sims, center, jokes with mentor Grace Krup, left, and Janine Conway, who started the district’s mentor program 13 years ago

Last school year ended with more than 220 students in grades 5-12 assigned a mentor. Interested parents fill out a permission slip, and the district takes it from there. All meetings between mentors and mentees take place inside school buildings, and the district requires everyone who will be in buildings regularly to pass a background check.

“We really attribute the success of the program to that 15 minutes a week,” Conway said. “We let the mentors set the time and the day, and we match them with a student.

“It’s the consistency, the keeping your word and the simply showing up that is crucial. And when you stay with that student for five, six, seven years, it’s huge. The connection grows and the connection gets deeper.

“It’s so simple, but amazingly effective.”

Admiration Goes Both Ways

Scott Dood may have graduated from Northview High School in 1989, but he’s been showing up at East Campus once a week for the past 13 years.

Dood — rhymes with road — is a volunteer mentor who commits a minimum of 15 minutes once a week to check in with his mentee at school. For the past five years, that’s been senior Cole Besemer.

“We talk about a lot of ‘looking toward the future’ stuff,” Cole said. “He has an outlook and a moral compass that a lot of people around me don’t have. He comes from a place where success is a goal, and he’s the most giving person I know.

“I honestly don’t think I’d be as mature as I am now without Scott in my life.”

The admiration goes both ways.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to be doing this, and it’s fun,” said Dood, a married father of two young daughters. “I think the biggest thing about it is I come in as a Cole fan. Cole has taught me what it means to be resilient. He hasn’t had it easy growing up, but he’s a smart, bright young man with so much potential and a very sweet spirit about him.

“I want to make sure I can sprinkle some positivity in his life on a regular basis. We’re friends.”

And if previous mentees are any indication, their relationship will endure beyond graduation.

This past summer, Dood and his wife were guests at the wedding of 2011 Northview graduate Jeremy Horton, whom Dood mentored for five years.

Jeremy said the pair has kept in touch off and on.

“School wasn’t really very fun for me, for the most part,” Horton said. “(With Dood’s visits) I had something to look forward to every Friday. He was just fun to talk to.

“He’s a lot older than me, so I could look up to him and ask him questions beyond the realm of school. It definitely made that time little brighter.”

East Campus senior Cole Besemer, left, with mentor Scott Dood

A Commitment of Love

The Northview Mentor Program is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It operates on $10,000 a year, from which it pays a part-time coordinator and an assistant.

One-third of the operating budget comes from the district; the remainder is from donations from mentors, local businesses and other community members.

Drew Klopcic, coordinator of student supports, said the goal at East Campus is to have a mentor for every student. Currently, about 75 percent of students there have mentors.

“Having someone outside the building who can reinforce the skills we’re trying to push with them sometimes carries more weight,” he said.

Crossroads Principal Jerry Klekotka was the principal that Janine Conway first approached about starting a mentor program. As athletic director at the high school, Klekotka said he saw mentors meeting with mentees they’d had since elementary school.

“This has been a commitment of love more than time,” he said. “Every kid would benefit from having a mentor. Just an adult to talk to; that’s all it is.”

Anaiya’s mentor, Grace Krup, has been mentor to seven other Northview students. She said the experience has taught her valuable lessons.

“I’ve learned so much about our kids, that they come from so many different life situations. It’s given me so much insight into our community, and it’s challenged me to stick around for them.”

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SNN article: Northview mentor program empowers students and adults alike

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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