Rutland mentoring program highlights fitness

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(Host) How can communities help their kids succeed? One of the best ways, according to experts, is to make sure young people have at least one trusted adult they can turn to. Because mentoring works, and because the costs are relatively low, communities across the state are looking at ways to expand.

VPR’s Nina Keck reports on a new mentoring program in Rutland that targets fitness.

(Sound of people, laughing gathering ski equipment) “Hey Chad can you grab my skies for me out of there and my poles? No I didn’t seatbelt them in…”

(Keck) Sandra Owens and Chad Frederick are determined to keep their weekly get together, despite the below zero temperatures. Sandra, a 42-year-old jeweler from Benson, and Chad a 13-year-old seventh grader at Mill River Union Middle School, have been meeting once or twice a week for over a year now. They’re participants in a new mentoring program in Rutland called Work it Out.

(Frederick) “I think I’m doing a little bit better in school. Well I’m actually passing all of my classes right now. And she’s been helpful in telling me that school’s important and that you can’t really do anything in life without a high school and college degree.”

(Keese) Chad and 21 other young people between the ages of 12 and 18 are taking part in the mentoring program, which the Rutland Area Prevention Coalition began a year ago. Donna O’Malley, the program’s coordinator, says adults interested in becoming a mentor are thoroughly screened. There are background and fingerprint checks, as well as extensive interviews. She says prospective mentors are asked to spend at least one hour a week with their mentees and are asked to commit at least one year to the relationship. Mentor Sandra Owens says it’s not a commitment you make lightly:

(Owens) “We went through five or six weeks of training – pretty intense training – before we met our mentees. And then just before we had this kickoff party where we met our mentees, we needed to call in and find out who our mentees were. And I remember reaching for the phone and hesitating and thinking, ‘Wow, when I pick up the phone and hear this name it’s going to be a significant name for the rest of my life.'”

(Keck) Owens smiles and says now, more than a year later, she does feel as though Chad is a part of her family. National statistics show that 99% of adults who’ve been a mentor would recommend it to others. Donna O’Malley says it’s still a challenge to get people to make the commitment. But she says using fitness as a focus has made it a lot easier. A Rutland health club and a local rock-climbing center have made their facilities available to participants free of charge. Chad Frederick says when he heard about the rock climbing, he was much more willing to give mentoring a chance:

(Frederick) “It was fun trying new things, actually going hiking and snow-shoeing and everything. It’s just kind of cool to have someone to hang out with, other than your parents or your brother or sister.”

(Keck) The fact that Sandra and Chad have been together for over a year is good. Research shows the longer the mentoring relationship lasts, the better the outcome. According to Big Brothers-Big Sisters, one of the best known and longest running mentoring programs, kids with a mentor were 46% less likely to use drugs and 27% less likely to drink alcohol. They were 52% less likely to skip school and were more likely to go to college. Data also shows mentored youth commit fewer misdemeanors and felonies. Bill Young, former commissioner of Vermont’s Social and Rehabilitative Services, says in many cases, a concerned adult can make all the difference.

(Young) “I’ve worked 32 years in corrections and child welfare in Vermont and the kids that I saw make it – and even kids who have the most horrendous experiences you can think of – do make it. You ask them what made the difference for you and usually what it was, was some person locally. Maybe it was a teacher, maybe it was the next door neighbor or a cop who took an interest in them and went out of their way to help. But usually it’s because of what somebody did with that child’s life.”

(Keck) Finding qualified adults who are willing to commit the time and energy isn’t easy, however. And for every Chad, there are several more kids on the waiting list. Money is also a factor. According to one estimate, it costs about $1,000 a year per youth to run a quality mentoring program – and that doesn’t include donated time and resources. While a thousand dollars may sound like a lot, mentoring proponents like Donna O’Malley say it’s a lot less than what a community like Rutland will pay later on when a child falls through the cracks.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

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