As Greenville continues to grow at a rapid pace, tragically the number of children living in poverty is also increasing. Studies show that 51.9% of children in Greenville County schools are eligible to receive free or reduced meals at their school. Often, these same children lack a steady, supportive adult presence in their lives.
Can you imagine, in your youth, getting home from school and not having somebody ask, “How was your day?” This is the reality facing so many children in the Upstate today. To help address this issue, Matt and Jenny Reeves—founders of the Frazee Center—developed Mentor Upstate in 2013, a program that reaches children from all over Greenville County and pairs them with mentors.
The Mentor Upstate model is very simple. After filling out an application, going through a short training session, and passing the District’s background check, adults are paired up with children who have been pre-selected by their teachers and counselors. Over 1,000 mentors across the Upstate have been matched, through Mentor Upstate, with in-need children. Once a week, for the duration of a school year, mentor and mentee meet for lunch or breakfast at the child’s school. The consistency of these visits helps to build a trusting relationship that can go a long way towards solidifying good habits that can help the child succeed going forward.
Susan McLarty, the Mission Outreach Coordinator at Westminster Presbyterian Church is a mentor with Mentor Upstate. Inspired by a trip to Malawi where she saw first hand the devastating effects of poverty on young children, Susan decided to invest herself into her own community. For the past five years, she has mentored a young girl named Chy’Kyla.
Susan and Chy’Kyla see each other once a week during the school year, often over lunch at East North Street Academy. Although nothing more than a simple, engaging conversation is required at these meet-ups, the pair have become great friends throughout the mentorship. McLarty appreciates the simple things that Chy’Kyla loves so much. Whether it’s inventing a story together, writing notes to friends and teachers, or playing Hangman, the two have a lot of fun together.
The consistency of their friendship has allowed Chy’Kyla to open up over the years. She shares more and more with Susan, including the difficult feelings she encounters about life. Susan has also become close with Chy’Kyla’s family – her mother could not be more supportive of their relationship.
Susan remarks, “Chy’kyla has grown tremendously over the last five years and has improved at school as well as at home. But, the profound impact of the mentor-mentee relationship goes both ways.” McLarty acknowledges, “I’ve learned about hard work, family support, and a lot about my own misunderstanding and the blinders I still work to see around.” She describes the relationship as very positive force in her life, and hopes that Chy’Kyla will always consider her a friend.
Studies have shown that many students with mentors show tangible improvements at school. For instance, at Hughes Academy in 2014, students with mentors showed a 56% reduction in failed classes, a 51% reduction in absences, and a 26% reduction in disciplinary referrals. Additionally, anecdotal evidence shows that these same children often have improved confidence and display a better attitude towards school. Simply by engaging with these children and asking them questions over lunch can also go a long way towards improving their outlook on life.
It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must be for young children to face life when they don’t receive the one-on-one attention they crave. Often parents are absent or have to juggle several jobs and multiple kids and consequently are just not able to provide this type of support. While these circumstances may be out of a parent’s control, the unfortunate truth is that children are the most affected.
Programs like Mentor Upstate offer mentors the opportunity to have a great impact on a child’s life, as well as providing them with a rewarding volunteer experience. At the very least, mentors will leave with the knowledge that they are a valuable source of support for a special child. And then of course there is a very personal benefit; these simple lunchtime conversations may actually lead to a lifelong friendship.
Mentor Upstate is always in need of new mentors, and the process is very easy. To learn more, visit: http://www.mentorupstate.org/be-a-mentor