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Helping Services youth mentoring comes to Clayton County

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Hanna and Harper have been matched through Helping Services’s youth mentoring program for over a year. During that time, they have gone to the park, shared a meal, went to the movies and enjoyed youth mentoring group events like a pool party and pumpkin patch visit. (Submitted photos)

A federal grant has allowed Helping Services for Youth & Families, a non-profit organization based in northeast Iowa, to expand its current youth mentoring program into Clayton County. Here, mentors and mentees attend a group event at Prairie Fun Land in Prairie du Chien, Wis.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

 

A recently awarded federal grant has allowed Helping Services for Youth & Families, a non-profit organization based in northeast Iowa, to expand its current youth mentoring program into Clayton County. The goal is to reach at least 160 rural youth who have been impacted by opioids and drug addiction, as well as domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse, parent incarceration and mental health issues.

 

The program dates back to 1998 and will be led by Jenny Rose, who will transition from her role working with the substance abuse arm of the organization, where she spent the previous 10 years, into the mentoring coordinator for Clayton County. Rose is a firm believer in the program’s mission to bring area adults and youth together in a way that will transform their lives, inspiring them to achieve their utmost potential while feeling connected, valued and empowered.

 

Rose looks to create “positive experiences” over the course of the 36-month project, the length of the grant that was awarded, though by all indications Rose believes the program will live beyond that timeline. Arriving at that destination will require some groundwork for a program that has already seen success in neighboring counties. Around 30 matches have been achieved in northern counties and in Delaware County, though Rose indicated those numbers slightly fluctuate. They also suggest there is need for the program.

 

There’s also an excitement within Clayton County. Rose stated “people want mentoring.” Prior to applying for the grant, Helping Services “knew it was going to be well accepted.” 

 

That knowledge has made raising awareness and outreach efforts a positive experience that motivates Rose.

 

Since Jan. 1, when Rose officially took over as mentor coordinator, she has traveled across Clayton County, holding meetings with school administrators and local businesses, while also attending local events such as Elkader’s Ladies’ Day Out to spread the word. 

 

Outreach identifies potential mentors, either through word of mouth or referral. To date, Rose has handed out over 40 applications to individuals interested in being a mentor and has received five completed applications, which is proving to be a positive start.

 

Mentees come from a variety of sources, including junior court officers, referrals from schools and parents, typically for youth who are at risk, but the program is open to all kids ages 6 to 17 who might benefit from having a mentor. All you have to do is sign up for the program and the process begins.

 

The program offers two types of mentoring, school-based and community-based. The main difference between the two is school-based is generally a high school student who takes on the mentor role for a younger student. Activities are done on school grounds during school hours and the connection usually doesn’t continue over the summer months. However, Rose mentioned that, in some cases, matches have turned to the pen-pal method to maintain connection over those months.

 

In the case of community-based, activities are all done in and around the community, or “anything they want for the most part,” Rose said, though activities are normally low-cost outings. It’s a four-hour-per-month time commitment, which can be spread out over the month.

 

The program utilizes a stringent process to match mentors with mentees, to ensure successful and enduring matches. Matches are often based on interests, skills and comfort level, arrived at after an application and interview process, as well as from recommendations from community leaders.

 

It’s about “matching personalities that fit,” Rose said.

 

Mentors receive training on their role in the process, which is identified as being a friend, providing additional support, teaching skills and taking advantage of teachable moments. They also need to be timely, communicative and positive. 

 

According to Rose, some of the relationships built as a result of this program have lasted beyond the timeframe of the program, leading to life-long friendships.

 

If the program faces one challenge, it’s in finding male mentors. The current roster of mentors is about 75 percent women, which has led to lengthy waiting periods for youth seeking a male mentor in some areas. The cause of this problem, while being explored through focus groups and conversations with men in the program counties, is not fully known. Rose suggested that, through focus groups, they found men often didn’t have the confidence or simply didn’t know about the program. That lack of awareness has pushed for increased outreach, such as more meetings with groups, conversations in communities and radio ads—anything to get more men into the program.

 

One reason Helping Services and Rose are behind this push into expanding the youth mentoring program is the positive benefits that come out of it. According to data provided by Rose, of the youth who have gone through the program, 100 percent feel hopeful about their future and feel mentoring helped strengthen their social skills. Ninety-seven percent reported they can “say no” to drugs and feel they have positive relationships with others, while 95 percent believed youth mentoring offered new experiences.

 

Additionally, the 2023 MENTOR Study found 74 percent of youth who had a meaningful mentor said the mentor “contributed significantly to their later success in life,” while 58 percent of young people in the study stated their mentor “supported their mental health.” Furthermore, 60 percent of those in the study under 40 years old are “still drawing advice from their childhood mentors.”

 

“Just having that one positive support person that is there for you really helps you grow and feel connected and valued and empowered,” Rose said.

 

Rose encourages anyone interested in either being a mentor or a mentee to contact her at jrose@helpingservices.org. She acknowledged that, with the end of the school year coming, there is an expectation that matches will occur before the school year ends. On the community-based side of the program, matches are anticipated by this summer or sooner, depending on how many mentors and matches can be made before then.

 

Rose noted there has been an “overwhelmingly positive response” to the program and believes it’s “really going to be able to make a difference.”

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