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Wednesday, December 12 , 2018, 6:10 pm | Fog/Mist 58º


Fighting Back Mentor Program Setting an Example for At-Risk Youth

Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse pairs volunteer mentors with students to cultivate a positive support system — and there's room for you

[Noozhawk’s note: Second in a series. Click here for a related article. Click here for a third article.]

The Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse not only provides much-needed programs for those struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, but also seeks to create a supportive environment for at-risk children with its Fighting Back Mentor Program.

“Kids grow up in this neighborhood with 10 people in a one-bedroom apartment,” said Juliana Lee, the mentor program coordinator. “No one looks out for them and if they leave no one notices. So, if we give them one person who does notice, one person who will ask them what they were doing, that’s what matters.”

The mentor program began in 1994 as part of an initiative of the Fighting Back Collaborative, which was started with a planning grant from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation.

The only purely preventative program of CADA, located at 232 E. Canon Perdido, the mentor program pairs at-risk youth, usually between the fourth and eighth grades, with adult mentors from the Santa Barbara community.

The children are mostly referred by their schools through a teacher. Mentors are chosen through a review process that includes an interview, background check and application form, and they are matched with children based on their own backgrounds and experiences.

The program provides monthly training for mentors on different topics, such as gang awareness, and the parents of the mentees are always welcome to join in these sessions.

The minimum commitment for a mentor is one hour a week with a mentee for a full calendar year. Most mentors begin by meeting their mentee at lunchtime once a week at school and playing games or helping with homework. Eventually, the mentors can’t help but spend more time with their mentee, according to program staff members.

“It’s hard to spend an hour a week with an adorable child and not build a deeper relationship,” said Ann Cowell, a mentor program advocate. “It always happens. They start out with school and then they just end up becoming friends and teaching each other life lessons, and growing so much as people.”

What’s unique about CADA’s mentor program is that it’s school-based, which provides a venue for a stable relationship to grow. The scheduled meetings at the beginning of the mentor-mentee relationship help build a trust that is not easily broken, allowing the children to understand commitment and responsibility while providing a consistent support system in their lives that they may not have had before.

“Kids aren’t always taught responsibility at home so abiding by time schedules is a foreign concept to them,” Lee said. “By starting at school, the mentor can build a routine with the kids.

The school setting is also a rich resource for the mentor. It provides a knowledge base where mentors can learn what academic area the mentee is having difficulty with, or simply find out what level of books they should be reading together. 

“... Once that relationship and rapport have been established, they (the mentor) can be more comfortable meeting with them (the mentee) outside of school.”

As the relationships grow, so do the activities the mentors and mentees do together. Mentors are encouraged to support any interest of the mentee, large or small. Through partnerships with organizations such as Musicbox and the Boys & Girls Club, they can help nurture interest in music, athletics, the arts and the outdoors.

During the school year, the mentor program provides four large family events that draw an average of nearly 200 family members, mentees and mentors. Throughout the year, the program provides activities like museum trips and theater performances to help create enriching experiences for the kids.

What mentors are consistently afraid of at the beginning, however, is whether they’re truly going to make a difference in their mentees’ lives, CADA officials say.

“Mentors always want to see some sort of grade improvement or some other kind of tangible improvement in their mentee,” Lee explained. “But one of the biggest things we see that you can’t really measure is that all of the kids build self-confidence and self-esteem because they have someone consistently telling them that they’re worth something, that they matter, that they can be someone. And the more you hear that, the more you’ll believe it.

“It doesn’t matter how much of an attitude you try to pull,” she said with a laugh. “You’ll start believing it!”

According to Cowell and Lee, it’s the little things that really make a difference.

Cowell, who is a mentor herself, described one of her earliest experiences with her mentee. When the two first started meeting, Cowell would make big sandwiches for them both so they could have a picnic.

“I always put veggies in it, wheat bread, and lettuce and tomatoes because that’s just how it is in a sandwich!” she said.

Her mentee, who had never been taught anything about nutrition by her family, was surprised by the combination of ingredients in the sandwich.

“I started talking to her about it a little more, trying to encourage her to eat well, and about four months in she said to me, ‘You know, you’re the only one who can get me to eat my vegetables.’

“That one thing just totally validated my whole reason for being her mentor,” Cowell said. “It was great. It’s just that one thing that makes a difference, and it just makes you feel so good.”

At the end of every month, mentors must submit a log describing what they did and where they met with their mentees.

One of the logs Lee just received described a little girl who had emigrated from Mexico in fourth grade and was matched up with a mentor when she was in sixth. This girl was unable to build friendships because of the language barrier.

“She was really shy, withdrawn, with a single mom who had a brand-new baby,” Lee said. “This girl would often just go home and babysit for her mom so her mom could work. She really didn’t have any avenues to connect with anything in the community.”

At first, her mentor didn’t see anything wrong.

“She told me, ‘This girl’s a delight, I don’t get this, I don’t see what I’m doing to help her,’” Lee said. “Slowly but surely, though, she started seeing this little girl break out of her shell and become more confident. Every time her mentor saw her she’d say, ‘You are a delight to be with, you are so smart, you’re so beautiful.’”

The girl’s mentor provided encouragement every time they met. Lee said the girl was smart but she just didn’t know English. So her mentor started working on her English and in return the girl would teach her mentor Spanish.

“Now this girl wants to be a mentor for incoming seventh-graders at her junior high,” Lee said. “She’s written applications for summer camps and even though she was nervous about it, her mentor encouraged her. She ended up receiving a full scholarship to a summer program.”

The relationship illustrates the value of the mentor program, Lee said. By providing simple positive feedback and encouragement, she said, the girl was able to build confidence and now has become a happy, successful member of the community.

Meanwhile, the mentors get almost more out of the program.

“So many of the mentors who have been doing it for a while say, ‘I think I’m getting more out of it than he is, than she is,” Cowell said. “Something one of our mentors said that I think really captures the program is that you have a chance to form a relationship with somebody from a different generation and different background, and that relationship is so unique that it gives you such a different perspective on life.

“It really is an incredible experience to be a mentor,” Cowell concluded as Lee nodded in agreement.

Yet there is still the challenge of not having enough mentors. With nearly 90 kids on the waiting list, the mentor program is always looking for more volunteers, especially male mentors. Nearly 60 of the wait-listed children are boys.

“One of the greatest fears, I think, especially with male mentors, is that they won’t know what to do with a kid they don’t know,” Lee said. “But we really try to let people know: just be you. Be authentic. Because if you are, then we have a kid who we can match you with.”

Another fear is lack of time.

“We have mentors who travel all the time,” Lee said. “As long as you are consistent in communication with the mentee, that’s what matters. If you’re on vacation for three weeks, send them a postcard, send them an email, call them, send them a text. Just whatever it is to let them know you’re thinking about them.”

Cowell agreed.

“What really matters to the kids is that somebody cares about them,” she said. “So even if you’re gone and you care enough and you’re thinking about them enough to send a text message, that makes a huge difference to them.”

Cowell and Lee made it clear that just putting some time in — just an hour a week, in fact — as a mentor is really enough to make a big difference in a child’s life. Their straightforward goal is to provide at-risk kids the help and support they aren’t getting elsewhere.

“The more mentors there are in a community, the stronger the support system for everyone in that community,” Lee said. “I mean, you really do strengthen a community one person at a time. Why not start with the kids?”

» Click here to start the application process of being a mentor.

» Click here to view more stories from the Fighting Back Mentor Program.

» Click here for more information about the Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse.

» Like the Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse on Facebook. Follow CADA on Twitter: @CADASB.

» Click here for a related Noozhawk article on Teen Court.

» Click here for a related Noozhawk article on the Fighting Back Parent Program.


Join the Fighting Back Mentor Program in “Krazy Kickball Extravaganza” from 1 to 4 p.m. July 17 at the Viola Fields on the Carpinteria Bluffs. You don’t need to be a mentor to take part in this fun day and learn even more about the program. Click here to view the flier, call 805.963.1433 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) for more information.

Noozhawk intern Erin Stone can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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