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Mentoring during a pandemic: more important than ever

Northview — Junior Dawson DeWitt walked across the mostly empty parking lot at Northview High School recently and made a beeline for his mentor, Scott Dood. The pair hadn’t seen each other since school buildings closed last March to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

For the next 10 minutes or so, Dawson and Dood — rhymes with road — barely stopped talking. Dawson showed off his class ring and letter jacket, and Dood apologized for not having brought his usual snack to share.

Dawson and Dood are one of some 140 mentor-mentee pairs this year in the district. Given that none can visit in person — save this one-time meeting for a quick photo — they are still finding ways to connect, whether that is via video chat, telephone calls, email or texting. 

And Northview considers that a big win in a time when connection matters more than ever.

“It was kind of hard for me to make friends and talk to people,” Dawson recalled about entering his freshman year. “(Dood) has made me feel more confident.”

And the praise goes both ways: “I was painfully shy as well when I was about his age,” Dood recalled. “Now, he could easily be mentoring me. He’s determined, friendly … just a really good kid.”

During a recent mentor video chat, program Director Janine Conway read a message from a longtime mentor of a Northview Next student: “She handles so many difficult situations in her life that most people her age have support with … and felt she had to rely totally on herself.”

While the mentor wrote that she is glad to be a reliable sounding board for the student, she pointed out that it’s also been beneficial for her: “I can’t tell you how much this relationship with her has blessed my life.”

Said Conway: “That’s why we do this. You never know the difference it’s making.” 

At a recent virtual mentor meeting, high school counselor Sarah Gammans shared this slide about adolescent mental health during COVID-19

Fifteen Minutes a Week

The Northview Mentor Program got its start 15 years ago when Conway approached then-Crossroads Middle School Principal Andy Scogg in hopes of brainstorming ways adults could make a positive impact on students there.

It just so happened that Scogg and Jerry Klekotka, his assistant principal at the time who now is principal there, 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.

Within six months, 60 community members had signed up. Last year, some 220 students in grades 5-12 had been assigned a mentor. 

Interested parents fill out a permission slip, and the district takes it from there. Typically, 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.

There currently is a wait list of both students and potential mentors, Conway said. The district is not introducing new matches until leaders can meet face-to-face with mentors and in-person mentor-student meetings can safely resume. New mentors are always being sought, she said.

Dawson DeWitt, left, and his mentor, Scott Dood, saw each other face-to-face recently for the first time in more than a year

Connecting During COVID

Mentor Coordinator Chantil DeWitt acknowledged that connecting with students has been tough this year, but told mentors, “I just really encourage you to keep calling, keep emailing, because that’s giving them reassurance that you are still there for them … when they are ready to connect again, they can. We know it’s a struggle, but we appreciate it. You are making a difference in those students’ lives.”

Sarah Gammans, high school counselor and a longtime mentor herself, shared ideas for connection points that would work for a Northview mentor, or any adult who has parent permission to reach out to a struggling young person.

Ideas include having students teach their mentors about something they are interested in, watching a movie of the student’s choice and discussing it afterward, steering them toward mindfulness apps and other resources for well-being, helping them focus on what they can control and encouraging structure. 

“Students who have been able to keep grounded have been more successful,” Gammans said. “This generation has learned that there’s things in life they’re not going to be able to control. The lessons they are learning about life and what they can do in it is kind of amazing. (And with) adults in their lives helping them digest what’s happening, I think they have learned a lot of skills.

“It’s about that trusting relationship, and that alone goes a long way for students.”

Even if mentees don’t always respond to mentor emails or texts, “your consistent, reliable communication … they are noticing you are in their corner,” Gammans told them. “That is really powerful to a student.”

School counselor Sarah Gammans shared this slide about teen anxiety and depression at a recent virtual mentor meeting

‘So Many Positive Changes’

Scott Dood graduated from Northview High School in 1989, but he’s been showing up for students in the district for the past 15 years, when the mentor program started.

Some years he mentors more than one student. His sole mentee this year is Dawson.

Chantil DeWitt, Dawson’s mom, met Dood in January 2019 when she was training to be the program’s mentor coordinator. 

“Seeing how much of Scott’s heart was in the mentor program and how much of a difference he made in the life of his mentee really touched me,” she said. “It also opened my eyes to how much this program really does make a difference, not only in the students, but in the mentors as well.”

DeWitt said she has seen “so many positive changes in Dawson since Scott has been mentoring him.” He’s made friends with other students, is involved in sports and marching band, and “opens up to me and talks about his day, his friends and his future.”

In Dood, DeWitt said, “Dawson knows he has someone to depend on and someone who cares. It has been wonderful seeing the positive impact Scott has had on Dawson, and I truly appreciate him.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She 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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