School is easier for fourth-grader Angel Winquest because of Miss Judy. They met while Angel, 10, was in kindergarten and they anticipate a relationship that will last throughout her school career.
“I love having her here. She is a friend of mine,” said Angel. Once a week, Miss Judy comes to Cedar Trails Elementary to spend some time with Angel, who is dismissed from the classroom for their scheduled time.
Miss Judy is Judy Gage, a volunteer through the Kids’ Hope mentor program, which partners churches with public schools to place long-term mentors with children who need a little extra emotional support. The emphasis of the program is on relationship building but mentors occasionally provide academic support as well.
Both Gage and Angel came into the relationship cautiously. “Someone at my church (East Nelson United Methodist) asked me if I wanted to be a mentor,” Gage recalled. “I was very unsure. I had never done anything like this, but then for some reason, during the service, something — I don’t even remember what — made me realize that I should try this.”
Recently forced to retire from her job as a truck driver because of rheumatoid arthritis, Gage agreed to take on the challenge.
“Ideally they (mentors) follow the student through the grades,” said Kaitlynn Mackie, Cedar View’s interventionist. “They do a little bit of everything from just talking with them to bringing a snack or lunch, playing games or helping them with their classroom work.”
Gage said that especially at the beginning of their relationship, she helped Angel with school-related activities. “At first we did math problems, sometimes spelling and worked a lot on penmanship. Sometimes we read together: I read a page and she reads a page. But mostly it is social time, and we talk and do things together.”
High on the list of to-dos are crafts that Gage brings to the weekly meetings. They have settled on needlepoint projects. “We tried sewing but she didn’t have the patience for it,” said Gage of her young mentee.
“I did too!” Angel insisted. “I could do it now.” She is quick to admit she struggles with being argumentative and settling down. “I act bad sometimes,” she said. “I should listen to adults and do what I am supposed to do the the first time, but I don’t always do it.”
She looks to Miss Judy for emotional support. “She listens to me,” explained Angel as she described a frustrating experience with a classmate at a previous school event.
She depends on Gage’s listening ability as she talks about her home life and struggles with an older brother. She shares about summer visits to Illinois to see her mother and siblings who live there. In Miss Judy she has found a sympathetic ear when school is hard or the playground activities don’t go her way.
The relationship includes small gifts and treats, but one event stands out. “She surprised me and came to my birthday party. I couldn’t believe it!” said Angel after Gage stopped in at her home on her seventh birthday.
They have become close, and Angel worried when earlier this school year Gage had to miss a month and a stand-in mentor was assigned. “I was worried she wouldn’t come back,” said Angel.
The Kids’ Hope program strives to have the mentor stay with their student through the middle school years.
“I understand that I can still meet with her in high school, but the times are a bit shorter,” said Gage. “I suspect we will stay friends.”