Some kids want someone to play kickball with at recess or pretend to be superheroes with. Others need a confidant or somebody to push them to do their homework. But all the kids in the Catoosa County School mentorship program are looking for a friend, says Mark Collins.
Collins, 53, has been a mentor with the program since 2012. For 30 minutes each week, he visits Ringgold Elementary during either lunch or recess to spend time with his mentee, currently a third-grader whom he started mentoring last year.
"Once I get there I have 30 minutes of something that's more important than work. You see your effect in some little guy's laugh," Collins said. "Even though he beats me four out of five times in Uno, it shows me that there's more important things than just home, church, work."
Collins, who lives in Rossville, works across the street from Ringgold Elementary, at Metro Boiler Tube, and has roped several co-workers into joining the program. But there's still work to be done, he said.
The program is experiencing an extreme shortage of mentors, said Catoosa County Schools Partnership Program Coordinator Buffy Hemphill. She mentors a teenager at Heritage High School, where her office is located.
The need for mentors for older students is even greater, she said.
Most of the children in the program are recommended based on attendance, grades and discipline, said Hemphill.
"If a child is struggling in any of those areas, that's the child we try to find somebody to mentor," she said.
The individual schools then reach out to the parents or guardians for permission.
"The No. 1 goal is not tutoring," added Hemphill, 50. "So often, they just need an extra person to ask 'How are you?' [The mentee] needs somebody to show them that somebody cares."
Turnover rates both in mentors and mentees pose the biggest hurdle to getting the program to its full potential, she said. This is her 12th year as coordinator (the program has been around for 25), and she said the number of volunteers is at at an all-time low. Off the top of her head, she said three schools she oversees in the county reported mentor needs in early September.
It's rare for a mentor-mentee pairing to go from first grade to graduation. In her time in the program, Hemphill said she's only seen it twice. Collins' goal is small: He wants to mentor a kid from first grade to sixth grade, which is when middle school starts. So far, he's had a mentee in each grade, but this is the first year he's worked with the same mentee consecutively.
For those who are scared mentoring is too big of a commitment, Collins said there's no need to worry about that.
"They expect you can't make it every week; they know things come up," he said. "Everybody's scared they'll get a bad kid, but these kids just want a friend."
Mentor recruitment is year-round, but a one-hour training session and a free background check for the 2019-2020 school year is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 24 from 9-10 a.m. at Heritage High School. For more information, contact Buffy Hemphill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-619-0816.
Email Sabrina Bodon at email@example.com.