MCPH Sponsoring Not Alone Mentoring Program
Pat Thomas had long looked to give back.
As a former labor and delivery nurse, college professor and mother of five, she didn’t always have the time.
When retirement brought a health scare that she fought through and won a clean bill of health, she was more determined than ever to volunteer.
After utilizing her nursing skills in mission work for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Thomas was recruited to and jumped at the chance to become a mentor for a young mentee as part of Mills County Public Health’s Not Alone Mentoring.
“I love kids and if I could help someone feel good about themselves, I was going to do it,” said Thomas, 69, who has 19 grandchildren of her own. “I decided I’d try it and I love it. I have a great mentee.”
Thomas is one of more than a dozen mentors in the program than began in 2019 aiming to empower youth, ages 5 to 18, in the Mills County community to make positive life choices and to maximize their personal potential and promise.
The program is modeled off the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program with female adult mentors paired with female mentees and adult male mentors paired with male mentees. Mentors are asked to commit to supporting, guiding and being a friend to a young person for at least one year. It’s by becoming part of the youth’s social network, the program’s hope is the mentor helps the youth develop and reach positive, academic, career and personal goals.
“We focus on youth in the community who might have a need for a positive role model in their life,” said Not Alone Mentoring Program Coordinator Alyssa Karwal.
Mentors in the program are carefully vetted by MCPH and they also go through mentor training. Mentors and mentees are then matched by mutual interest. Both fill out an interest survey in their applications.
“We want to know what are their interests, their goals, the different things they like to do and we use that information,” Karwal said, adding she conducts interviews to find out what they’re looking for in both a mentor and a mentee.
“That helps me match their personalities, their common interests, and, since we do serve all of Mills County, their geographic areas. We like to have the matches close together, it just makes getting together easier.”
Most mentors agree to meet with mentees for at least an hour every week.
“Some spend way more than that with their mentees. You build a relationship and some become part of the family.”
COVID-19 has, admittedly, been a challenge for the program and for mentors and mentees to build relationships. But interest has remained high. They currently have 14 mentor-mentee matches, with five mentees on the waiting list.
“As things with COVID improve, we’re hoping to get the word out more about the program,” Karwal said.
Some of the program’s mentor and mentees have never met in person or met just once prior to the shutdowns.
COVID-19 forced many to turn to Zoom or FaceTime to keep in touch and to get creative about activities.
“They’ll read books over or draw or play games over Zoom even though they are far apart,” she said.
Karwal said the program has also offered monthly virtual activities like a Disney-themed virtual escape room, an Elf Night Christmas Karaoke sing- along and Pen Pal kits.
Thomas admits COVID-19 hasn’t made it easy for her and her 8-year-old mentee. But they’ve remained as active as they can. They go for walks and do crafts. They created Christmas cards and delivered them to the Ronald McDonald House. Thomas has even hosted movie nights and they’ve visited museums.
They intend to plant a garden this spring and Thomas hopes to get her young mentee hooked on reading this summer.
“I wanted her to feel like she’s helping others,” Thomas said. “It isn’t just me coming to her. We’re helping others and each other.”
That’s a common sentiment Karwal has heard. The mentor-mentee relationships are often mutually beneficial. She doesn’t label the program as a mental health therapy but more often than not, that’s how it works out.
“The goal is to help mentees with their mental health to become confident young people in their community and to set them up for success in the future,” Karwal said. “And in turn, I’ve also seen so many of the mentors grow. The mentors will tell you how their mentees have taught them and helped them with their own mental health.”
In addition to the one-to-one mentoring, the program also offers group mentoring events weekly, both virtually and at Grace United Methodist Church. That program focuses on teaching social and coping skills through fun activities and lessons.
“It’s got that mental health part but with the kids mentoring each other really,” she said.
The group will do yoga or have discussions focusing on positive lessons. Karwal hopes to add more excursions into the community down the road.
“We’re hoping to have picnics or Easter Egg hunts, a yard game activity night,” she said. “Anything that can get us outdoors and in person together.”
Thomas has just one regret about her mentoring: she wishes she’d been able to have done it sooner.
“The things they do, this program and the things they set up, it brings a lot of good people together to help,” Thomas said. “It’s not easy. They’ve got challenges and that’s what we’re here for, to help them through it.”