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Mentors make the difference one child at a time

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River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

E.P. Rock Elementary teacher Ann Siats doesn't seem surprised that the school's mentorship program "Stand by Me" is still going strong after six years. It was a good idea when she first conceived it and it still is. Just ask any of the 55 adults and 142 students who participate in the program every week.

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Siats is a big believer in the power of the mentor relationship. The mission of the program is "to promote mentoring and student empowerment: two goals that connect committed adults with willing students for the sole purpose of changing and/or improving lives for the better."

Most of the students involved in the program are in the fourth or fifth grade and request to participate in the program, whether for help with schoolwork or simply to make a friend. In the years since the program has begun, the mentor relationships have expanded to include friend groups and support relationships based on a student's needs. And the program has expanded into the middle school with students who have left Rock but still want to maintain a relationship with their mentor or another adult.

As the school year winds down, the mentors and their partners are working on goals they have set and just preparing to say good-bye for the summer. They talked about their experiences.

Kaylee Yeazle and Karen Kortum

Karen Kortum is a familiar face around Rock School. She taught second grade at the school until she retired three years ago. She likes being a mentor because it keeps her in touch with children and gives her a chance to see old friends and colleagues on a regular basis.

Kortum works with Kaylee Yeazle, a fourth-grader. As all the mentors do, they have lunch together and then spend time working on math with flashcards or anything Kaylee wants or needs help with. The meeting also includes time just to talk and do something fun.

Kortum also mentors 6-year-old Sabrina Cudd, a first-grader at Rock. For 15 minutes of their time together, the two girls are together with Kortum and they usually spend their time reading together in the library, something both girls enjoy.

Kortum said her relationship as a mentor is different from what she knew as a teacher. "You are so spread out in the classroom, trying to reach all the students. And as class sizes go up, that becomes more and more of a challenge. But as a mentor, I can focus just on one student, and the special time we spend together is so important to them. It is the kind of relationship where everybody wins and you certainly don't need to be a teacher to do it."

Kortum says having lunch together is an important part of the relationship. "It kind of reminds me of when I was in school and you used to go home for lunch and talk with your mom or whoever was there. You can learn a lot about a child over lunch, little clues to their personality, what they are thinking about. I wish we could spend more time together."

Kaylee, 10, is equally as taken with her mentor. "I like being with her. She's not rude at all. She always waits her turn to talk to people and doesn't interrupt me. She is very polite and kind to other people and she never says mean things. I've noticed that about her. I feel happy when we are together, happy and safe, like I don't have to worry about anything."

Jamie Petersen, Cole Miller, Spencer Knapp and Ted Treise

Jamie Petersen is a computer technician for the Hudson School District. He has been a mentor since last fall to fourth-graders Cole Miller, Spencer Knapp and Ted Treise.

"I don't have any sons and I thought this would give me a chance to be with some boys and do fun things with them," said Petersen.

The boys list off the things they do together including basketball, football and computer games as they enjoy their lunch. According to Ted, "Jamie is very cool. It's like talking to a friend. He even teases us like a friend."

Cole Miller says he likes "hanging out with a grown-up," and Spencer says they all share an interest in NASCAR racing.

Petersen said he hasn't been surprised by anything as a mentor but really enjoys the time he spends with the three boys. "It has gone better than I ever thought. It just seems like too short a time together. I wish it could be longer."

Petersen and the boys don't spend much time on school work. Their relationship is more social than anything else, and that suits everybody.

"I think we have a very good match among the four of us. They really aren't that different from me when I was their age. It's good to know some things don't change," said Petersen.

He has made the connection that Siats said is one of the most valuable things about the mentor relationship. Said Spencer, "He likes to goof around with us. He lets us be who we are."

Dianne Duray and Cody Sylvara

Duray has been a mentor with Stand by Me since the program began six years ago. An employee of First National Bank, Duray remembered when Siats first approached the bank for support and volunteers.

"She made a pretty good case for it, and she was right."

This year Duray is matched with Cody Sylvara, 10, a fourth-grader. Together they have worked on Cody's spelling with very positive results.

Of Duray, Cody has a child's highest praise - she is fun and "not too strict." He says his mentor encourages him and regularly praises his efforts. "I'm glad and happy when it is time for us to meet, and I am starting to like spelling."

Duray is just as impressed with Cody. "He is goofy and active and very nice to be around. He is a very visual learner and we work well together. I like meeting people like Cody and it is always nice to be of some help."

A student Duray formerly mentored has moved onto middle school, and she was pleased to hear that the student's mother had asked if Duray could mentor the student in sixth grade.

"It's a special relationship. It can't be forced but it usually works so well," Duray said. And for Cody the best part is "having someone come just for you."

Mary Conners and friends

Mary Conners is a student with special needs who is part of a friends group with mentor Lori Laumeyer and four other fifth-grade girls, Taquala William, Alli Tiedemann, Kayla Kiesler and Cassie O'Connor.

Together with Laumeyer, a clerical aide at the school, the girls meet every Wednesday and have become friends while doing service projects and just having fun together. For Mary the group has meant support and companionship, elements that are not always present for students with special needs. For the other girls, it has been a chance to get to know Mary, be her friend and help where they can.

"It has been nice getting to know each other and spend time together. I don't know if we would have done it if it hadn't been for the group," said Kayla.

Cassie said it has been the experience of not just helping Mary but doing projects with her that she has enjoyed. Laumeyer has worked with the girls to make scarves for winter, plant flowers and help out at adaptive physical education events like a sock hop and an ice-skating field trip. Laumeyer is Mary's mentor, but says the group has been good for everyone involved.

"It's been a good support for Mary but it has been good for all of us. We've become friends as we've done things together. It's about learning to accept each other as we are."

"And," said Taquala, "it's good to know you have friends who have got your back."

Linda Schmidt and Michael White

The connection between Linda Schmidt and "Million $" Mike White is pretty evident by the smiles on both faces as they work on Mike's spelling.

Schmidt, who works for the district's director of instructional services, was recruited by Siats this year and is glad she was.

"Just being with him has brought back a lot of memories for me. My children are grown and you can lose touch with the challenges kids like Mike face every day. I feel like this keeps me connected to a very important part of the real world."

For Mike, Schmidt's visits mean he "gets help with stuff and then we do something fun." The fifth-grader says, "She is very patient and she always listens to me. And I am doing a lot better."

Schmidt agrees. "He's so warm and friendly and outgoing. And he's worked hard. His positive attitude has made a big difference, and we both are feeling pretty good about ourselves."

Cary Cardell and Brandon Paschke

Cary Cardell said he was sold on being a mentor the first time Siats came to First National Bank to pitch the program. He has been involved ever since. This year he mentors Brandon Paschke, 11, who is in the fifth grade.

Cardell says the time he spends with Brandon is the "most fun lunch hour of my week. It has been so rewarding to work with him and watch the progress he has made. It's true what they say - when you help somebody out, you usually get a lot more in return."

Brandon feels the same way. "He's a super mentor. He's always kind and nice to me, and he has been a big help with my spelling words and other homework. He makes me feel proud of myself, and when we're done working we just go outside and have fun."

Cardell says the opportunity to work with a student like Brandon is a special part of his life, and he is grateful for the opportunity. He credits the success of the program to the dedication of the teachers at Rock School.

"They have it all set up so well and they make it easy for us to come in and be with our student. They do a lot of planning and preparation that we don't always see but it's because of what they do that we can focus all our time and attention on the kids."

Cardell says there aren't many certainties in life but he feels confident making one. "I guarantee you that if you give mentoring a try you will like it - 100 percent."

Mike Callahan and Josh Dustin

Josh Dustin doesn't mind spending time with his school principal these days, especially since Mike Callahan became his mentor.

Callahan is a big supporter of the Stand-by-Me program and decided to get into the act two years ago by becoming a mentor himself. He sees the relationship as reciprocal and believes mentors gain as much as they give when they get involved in a child's life.

"Kids need to be supported in so many ways - emotionally, socially and academically. Anytime we can add to that support, we are making a difference," said Callahan.

Callahan says the teachers on his staff do an excellent job but their focus, by necessity, has to be broad to accomplish all they have to in the classroom every day. "Giving students another adult just helps give them a better picture of how positive things can be in their lives. By just listening to them one-on-one, we can provide a boost that can make all the difference."

As principal, Callahan also sees the benefit of having adults from all parts of the community coming into the school to share a part of their lives with his students.

"It works both ways. The students see new role models and people doing good work, and the adults get to see what's happening in our school and see the challenges and efforts these kids make every day."

For Josh, his relationship with Callahan is a comfortable one, even if Callahan "is the boss at school." Like the other students, Josh gets help with math and spelling from his mentor, but there is always time for fun and the two make it a point to make time to play outside.

For Josh, the fact that Callahan works at the school has made their relationship "a lot more special. He's a pretty good principal but he's an awesome mentor."

The Stand-by-Me mentors are wrapping up for the school year, but will be recognized by the students and staff at Rock Elementary at the annual ice cream social held in their honor May 13.

For more information about becoming a mentor or to offer other support, contact Ann Siats at (715) 386-4237.

Meg Heaton can be reached at mheaton@rivertowns.net.

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