Local youth mentoring program in need of volunteers

Local youth mentoring program in need of volunteers

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Having a positive role model to receive advice from is important for children.

That’s the focus of Connections, Holmes County Juvenile Court’s mentoring program.

The program began roughly 10 years ago and has played a key role in the lives of numerous area youth since its inception.

“The main goal is to create meaningful relationships between children and mentors that encourage them to become capable, compassionate adults,” Connections program coordinator Nicole Lepley said.

Mentors are currently needed to match with the children who are on a waiting list.

“We definitely have a need (for mentors),” Lepley said.

Thomas Lee has served as Holmes County juvenile judge for nearly 26 years. He has had a firsthand look at how the program has changed the lives of local children.

“I know that we have had kids who have been referred to the program and hooked up with a mentor, and then we don’t see them anymore here in juvenile court,” he said. “That’s been really gratifying. We have had those situations with some great results. Their behavior in school improves. Their grades improve. Their overall behavior improves, and then we don’t see them again in juvenile court, which is certainly the goal here.”

People often think of delinquent or dangerous children when they hear about a juvenile court mentoring program. Lee said that’s untrue about Connections.

“The kids that we’re dealing with in juvenile court are kids who simply maybe don’t have a strong parent figure or a positive parent figure or anybody else in their life, like a really committed adult that is helping them,” he said. “What they need is just to have somebody spend some time with them to let them know that they’re valued, let them know that they’re worth loving and that they’re worth caring about. Every kid needs that.

“I don’t want people to think that these are rough and out-of-control kids. They’re simply kids that are struggling a bit in life that need some guidance from a committed adult.”

Lepley said there is an application process for those who are interested in becoming a mentor with the program, which includes children who are 6 years old up to turning 18.

“You have to fill out the application and provide three references,” she said. “We do have to actually get the references back. There’s a form that we send to the references. They have to do a background check and fingerprinting, and then there’s a training that they have to do with me. We have to get all of that going.

“We do a home visit just to make sure that there are no obvious dangers that we should be aware of. If the children are going to their home, we obviously want that to be a safe space.”

Once someone is approved to be a mentor, they’re paired with a child for at least a year, spending roughly an hour a week with their mentee. Lepley said some of the children have had the same mentor for several years.

“If we can (keep a pairing for multiple years), that’s great,” she said. “Once they’re 18, they age out. Some of them move on (from the program) or end before that.”

Mentors do a variety of things with the child they’re paired with. Lepley said they put out a newsletter every couple of months with some ideas of things mentors can do, such as upcoming events, with their mentees.

“I think the free things are probably where the most bonding takes place,” she said. “Take them for a walk on the trail or go to the park. Those things cost nothing but time and are huge opportunities to speak and not be distracted by what’s going on and what’s around, so I think those moments are probably the best moments.”

Lepley said she stays in contact with the mentors and mentees throughout the whole match. If mentors encounter a situation they aren’t sure how to handle, she’s readily available to help.

“I’m not just trying to match somebody and throw them out there and say, ‘Good luck,’” she said. “We’re here to offer support. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find the answer, and I obviously have (Lee), who will help me with anything I don’t know. I work great with the probation team. We’re here to help people succeed and not feel like they can’t handle it.”

Lee said it’s not just the children who benefit from the pairings.

“Not only do we hear good things from the kids, but our adult mentors talk to us about how much they get out of the program,” he said. “The opportunity to build into a kid’s life is really gratifying for our adult volunteers.”

If someone in Holmes County knows of a child who is struggling and would benefit from the program, they can call the juvenile court at 330-674-5841 and ask to be put in touch with Lepley.

“The majority of the matches that we see continue beyond the child’s 18th birthday into young adulthood, so that’s really gratifying to see these relationships get started and then continue even when the child reaches adulthood,” Lee said.