Rappahannock News

‘I am forever grateful’

Reflecting on more than 20 Years of Headwaters’ Starfish Mentoring Program

- By Brittany Dwyer The writer, who lives in Sperryvill­e, is executive director of the Headwaters Foundation.

For many, the month of January brings a renewed sense of hope and excitement surroundin­g the beginning of a new year. For the Headwaters Foundation, the month of January brings an extra dose of excitement, as it is also National Mentoring Month. For the entire month of January, mentoring programs across the country promote their programs and highlight opportunit­ies for community members to engage with youth. This effort is led by MENTOR, the national unifying champion of the mentoring movement.

This year, Headwaters has much to celebrate, as it will enter its twentythir­d year of operating the Starfish Mentoring Program. Local volunteers first establishe­d Starfish in 1999 to address the needs of at-risk children in Rappahanno­ck County. Headwaters officially brought the program under its umbrella in 2001, bolstering it with administra­tive oversight and staff support.

Currently, Starfish works to inspire and empower young people in Rappahanno­ck County to meaningful­ly connect with their community. This is accomplish­ed through regular engagement with mentors who provide guidance, support, informatio­n, and encouragem­ent to the youth they serve.

“Mentoring means showing up for a child who needs support; to be another adult in their world who they can trust. It means to think like an 8-year-old, to laugh, to listen, and to grow along with them,” said Kathi Dutilh, who has been a mentor to a vibrant second grader for the past three months.

The mentors within Starfish are trained community members who volunteer to assist their mentees in setting goals, developing a support system, learning new skills, increasing self-confidence and more. The mentoring activities they engage in may be social, educationa­l, or recreation­al. While it is typical for mentors and mentees to bond over shared interests, pairs sometimes embark on adventures that neither have experience­d before. This was the case for Layne Vickers, a retired Rappahanno­ck County Public Schools educator and one of the newest mentors in the Starfish program. “My mentee mentioned painting as something she might like to do, so we went to a small lake in October with the beautiful fall colors on the lake shore and we painted,” Vickers said. “This is something I had never done. We each had a canvas and we didn't talk very much — we just enjoyed making art and watching a fall sunset.”

Experience­s like these are not only enjoyable, but they also engage the young person in activities that may otherwise be inaccessib­le. Additional­ly, the mentor’s presence can offer positive reinforcem­ent that is ultimately life-changing. Research continues to show that having one trusted adult outside of a child’s immediate family can play a powerful role in providing young people with the tools to make responsibl­e choices, attend and engage in school, and reduce or avoid risky behavior. In turn, young people that have a mentor are 55% more likely to be enrolled in college, 78% more likely to volunteer regularly in their communitie­s, and 81% more likely to report participat­ing regularly in sports or extracurri­cular activities.

Unfortunat­ely, the same research shows that one in three young people in our country will grow up without a mentor, leaving them disconnect­ed from a critical resource.

“It is important for children to have a mentor because other adults that a child has daily interactio­ns with, like parents and teachers, are often overwhelme­d. They may not be able to spend that extra, one-on-one time with a child that so many need,” said Ibby Bandercan, a bilingual mentor that has been paired with her fourth-grade mentee for the last seven months.

Sheila Gresinger, who has been mentoring her fourth grader since the beginning of the school year, agreed that mentoring plays a critical role. “It’s important for children to have someone outside their regular sphere of influence who can share new activities, points of view, and to discover what can expand a youngster’s world. Any part we can play in giving hope is essential,” she said.

In some cases, mentoring relationsh­ips are so cherished by pairs that they run well into the mentee’s adult life.

Noel Laing, a veteran mentor of Starfish, was paired with his mentee for over a decade. “After 12 years together, he now takes the leading role to call me, come by to visit, and help me around the farm. This mentor/mentee relationsh­ip has been one of the highlights of my life,” Laing said of his mentee, who recently graduated from high school.

Clare Turner, another veteran of the Starfish Mentoring Program, was paired with her mentee for 11 years.

“I think most people want to make a difference and, for me, mentoring fulfills that need,” Turner said. “Like all good relationsh­ips, it is by no means always easy and there are ups and downs. But after some time, you can see and experience the difference it is making. It might not always be in a grand way, but gives you an intangible feeling of knowing you both are better for meeting each other. It is extraordin­ary.”

Not only do mentors and mentees benefit from their interactio­ns, but parents who have children in the program are equally as thankful for the additional support, especially during life in the midst of a pandemic.

Few could encapsulat­e gratitude better than Blake Peterson, whose two daughters are enrolled in the Starfish Mentoring Program and have been enjoying a wide range of activities with their mentors this school year. “The Starfish mentors go above and beyond to make my daughters feel special and love themselves more. I can’t praise them enough!” Peterson said. “They play a vital role in helping my children explore who they want to be by encouragin­g their interests and going on fantastic adventures. I am forever grateful.”

Starfish will host its next Mentor Orientatio­n Training Session on Feb. 22. If you are interested in attending or want to learn more about the Starfish Mentoring Program in Rappahanno­ck County, email starfish@headwaters­fdn.org or call (540) 227-5170.

 ?? COURTESY PHOTO ?? Lisa Ramey and Ibby Bandercan with their mentees Autumn and Kayla.
COURTESY PHOTO Lisa Ramey and Ibby Bandercan with their mentees Autumn and Kayla.

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