About ten years ago, there was a movie called, “Pay It Forward.” In it a 12 year old comes up with an idea to change the world not by paying back a favor, but by doing three good deeds, thus “paying it forward.”
With Thanksgiving and all the other holidays coming up soon, now’s a good time to not only thank those who’ve helped you, but to help others who need you. And in this area, there may be no better group than our youth.
Whether you believe, like recent reports, that all kids want to learn and our public schools are letting them down – or that many kids come to school unprepared and parents don’t care much about what’s going on, either way, there are kids in need.
For many, that help, support, and encouragement may come from a family member, but it may also come from a teacher, community partner, church member, Scout leader, or a mentor. Since 2003, SMILES (SouthCoast Mentoring Initiative for Learning Education and Service) has worked to respond to the South Coast’s dropout rate and poor workforce education demographics.
Hundreds of SMILES
According to the SMILES website, the first mentoring programs were launched in two New Bedford middle schools, and facilitated by staff at the New Bedford Prevention Partnership. SMILES initial partners included the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce, Greater New Bedford Interchurch Council, New Bedford Public Schools, and the New Bedford Prevention Partnership.
In 2006, SMILES incorporated as a nonprofit organization and expanded from the two schools in the Whaling City to 12 in Fall River and New Bedford. A strategic decision was made by SMILES partners to incorporate in 2006 as a nonprofit to position the program for significant growth. The Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts who had served as fiscal agent for SMILES was relieved of that when 501c3 charitable status was received from the Internal Revenue Service in 2007.
Expansion in both New Bedford and Fall River has continued. Currently there are more than fifteen programs in Fall River and eighteen in New Bedford serving over 500 matches. Independent mentoring is also offered at the middle and high school levels in both New Bedford and Fall River. Programs are also available in Dartmouth, Fairhaven, Norton and Wareham and Westport. At their Annual Meeting in June 2010, SMILES Mentoring became part of People Incorporated.
“This partnership will strengthen both organizations, and most importantly will continue the work of building futures for the children of the South Coast area,” People Incorporated President and CEO, Robert Canuel stated in a local news report.
Jim Mathes, Executive Director of the SMILES Mentoring Program, in the same article, agreed.
“SMILES just finished its fourth year as a non-profit corporation. In that time, we’ve aggressively grown our programs to now having more than five hundred volunteer mentors working with students in nearly thirty local schools. Our affiliation with People Incorporated will position us for more growth, as we continue toward our goal of three thousand volunteers matched with students who will benefit from having a SMILES mentor in their life,” he said.
A Mentor’s tale
In the interest of full-disclosure, I’ve been involved with SMILES for more than four years. Not only did I make a new, young friend back when Zach was in sixth grade, but I also have been able to watch him grow over the years. And I look forward to his new adventures this year as he enters his sophomore year at Durfee.
Sometimes, there wasn’t much to say, so we didn’t talk much. Last year, I learned a lot about skateboarding and the other things that matter to a high school student. But no matter what, we both showed up most of the times, and each time we shook hands when we parted ways.
We always talked about how he was doing in school and what he was doing outside of school. It was important to me that Zach knew that I was concerned about his work in the classroom – and his behavior outside the classroom. I’m not sure if it made a difference, but I think knowing that I’d ask helped him make the right decisions.
Over the past four years, I’ve also observed the interactions of other teams. Everybody brings and gives different perspectives and approaches to mentoring, but everybody seems to share one thing in common: care and concern for each other. That’s a good thing.
Again, according to their website and my experience, SMILES recruits adult volunteers from the community to serve as one-to-one mentors with youth in the New Bedford and Fall River areas.
SMILES Mentors must be able to complete our screening process, which includes a CORI (criminal background records check), a personal interview, three reference checks, a training session and pre-match orientation. Mentors must agree to the time requirements of the program (one hour a week for a minimum of one program year) and have access to transportation to mentoring activities.
School administrators and counselors recommend mentees. Like the South Coast and the SMILES mentors, they come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse needs.
The program follows guidelines found in the National Mentoring Partnership’s Elements of Effective Practice. A key component is that there is no contact outside of the SMILES sessions. The matches meet at the same time, once per week for a minimum of one hour at school sites.
Does that one hour make a difference? According to research done by the Harvard Mentoring Project, it apparently does. What they call “prominent studies of mentoring programs” found that mentored youth were 46% less likely than their peers to start using illegal drugs, were 27% less likely to initiate alcohol use, were 33% less likely to engage in violence, and skipped school 53% less.
I like those odds, so mentoring is a gamble I’m happy to take. To get involved or for more information, visit the SMILES website at www.smilesmentoring.org, contact the office at 508-999-9300, or email email@example.com