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Teenagers reach out to the younger set

NKSD’s Teen Mentor Program nurtures elementary students in need of a positive role model.

NORTH END — Some elementary students drag off the bus with a lot more on their backs than a pack and books.

They enter the school doors with emotional pain in toe, as society’s ailments and the current economic hardship trickles down to the country’s youngest and most defenseless citizens.

Mom or dad may have lost a job, or gotten a divorce and don’t have time or attention to shower on a child. A student may have recently transferred schools and doesn’t have friends to sit with at lunch or play with at recess, and there’s no one at home to provide comfort. This isn’t just a national problem. It’s a local issue, and prevalent in the North Kitsap School District.

“Yes, we see them walking in the hallways,” said Poulsbo Elementary fifth grade teacher Barbara Pixton. “These are kids that go home with a key around their neck so they can get into the house. It’s sad. These are the innocent ones who are too ashamed to tell you, ‘I’m hungry.’ ”

It is sad, but it’s reality. However, NKSD, in partnership with Kitsap County, has a long-standing program in place to help its elementary students in need of some nurturing.

The Teen Mentor Program (TMP), which the district’s school board voted to renew Sept. 25, pairs high school mentors with an elementary student in need of academic and/or social or emotional help.

Mentor and mentee meet for an hour once a week to hang out; maybe do an art project, play a game, shoot some baskets. Help with school work can occur, however, the mentor is not intended to be a tutor. It’s usually the last hour of the elementary school day and the same day each week that mentors come to the classroom to pick up their little friend.

“Imagine being in a second grade classroom and you’re the only one whose mentor comes to get you. It makes them feel very special and it might be the only time that happens to them,” said Pixton, who’s Poulsbo Elementary’s TMP coordinator. “We’ve had little first-graders who hate school and the only reason they get up to go to school is their mentor is coming. Having that activity is that powerful.”

Teenagers interested in becoming a mentor must submit a fairly lengthy application packet, which includes an essay on why they’d be a good mentor, three teacher/counselor recommendation forms and answers to 13 questions pertaining to the program. Then the prospective mentors have an interview with Brendie Vance, the high school coordinator, and an elementary coordinator. Once the mentors are selected they go through approximately three and a half hours of training. Mentors are taught about confidentiality and asked, “If you suspect abuse might be happening what would you do?” They’re also given specifics on how to respond if the answer to that question is yes. The mentors are matched up with an elementary student by the elementary coordinators, and are asked to commit for one year, as the mentees need consistency in their lives.

“They really need to stick to it,” Vance said. “They’re working with an elementary student without a lot of consistency in their lives and they’re depending on that — ‘It’s Wednesday. My mentor is coming.’ ”

Vance said generally 30-35 teenagers apply to be a mentor and at least 50 percent are returning mentors. She’s anticipating a similar number this year. Application deadline is Oct. 24 and the program will be in full swing by mid-November. Unfortunately there’s often not enough high school mentors to fill the elementary need.

“The elementary coordinators have always said to me they always have more students than there’s mentors for, and it’s really unfortunate,” Vance said. “We could definitely use more mentors and I think the biggest issue is high school kids have a lot on their plates.”

Pixton said last year 21 students at Poulsbo Elementary requested a mentor, which is the most she’s ever seen in her seven years with the program, and she anticipates even more this year.

“I hate to see what the numbers are going to be because I know there’s going to be a great need this year,” Pixton said. “A lot of parents have been laid off from work and it definitely affects what’s going on in the classroom.”

Pixton said there’s generally plenty of young ladies who become mentors, but there’s not enough young men, and sometimes she has to match up little boys with a young women.

“If they (young men) could just touch one life they could influence an entire generation,” Pixton said.

Currently the program is offered at Breidablik, Wolfle and Poulsbo elementary schools.

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