Mike Walker and Ryan Byrne (grade 5). Photo contributed.

Chances are if you are like many of us, there was someone you met along the way growing up who made a major difference in your life. Perhaps it was your aunt, a soccer coach, a neighbor or a teacher at school. Whoever it may have been, you likely felt transformed, motivated or excited in ways that you hadn’t experienced before. More than likely that person changed the arc of your life in ways that you might not have guessed possible at the time.

Formal education is a wonderful and empowering thing, but for many of us it is not where the magic happens. The magic happens when we meet someone during our formative years whose insights, imagination and belief in us makes a difference in how we feel about ourselves. 

I have spent two thirds of my adult life teaching. One of the things I have learned from speaking to countless former students is that it was the chance encounter with an individual in their formative years that made all of the difference in how they felt about themselves, their interests and their careers. Not that this cannot, and does not, happen in formal educational settings—it does. However, more often than not, it happens through informal encounters with people we meet in our daily lives. 

Vermont’s youth mentoring programs are about not leaving these encounters to chance. Rather they are designed to bring a diverse group of adults into the lives of our kids—enhancing the likelihood that the “magic” will happen. 

Currently there are more than 140 mentoring programs based at schools and youth service agencies in the State of Vermont, serving more than 2,300 kids from elementary school through high school. April is National Volunteer Month, and while it is a great time to celebrate the service of current mentors, there is still a significant need for additional volunteers. Mobius, a statewide organization that supports youth mentoring programs, estimates that there are still more than 15,000 kids in the state who are in strong need of mentoring services. 

Have you ever thought about becoming a mentor for a young person in your community? Let me tell you a little more about what’s involved, based on my experience. 

School-based programs, like Connecting Youth, the program I’ve been mentoring through for the past four and a half years, are all slightly different. However, each is staffed by a coordinator and is integrated into the curriculum offerings of each school. Here’s how the program works. Children may be nominated for mentoring in a number of different ways–by their teachers, school administrators, parents or even by the students themselves. Perhaps they are shy or anxious at school. Perhaps they would just like to hang out with an adult and not have to concern themselves with peer pressure. Or, they just want to get out of the classroom for an hour and not feel compelled to answer questions. Regardless of the reason, just about any young person could benefit from having another positive adult in their life.

Mentors usually spend about an hour a week with mentees. They are not there to teach. They are not there to give grades, nor are they there to ask questions. Their role is to listen, talk, play games, work on projects, cook—just about anything a child wants to do. It is in the context of these weekly encounters that the “magic” sometimes—not always—happens. 

Some mentors begin their relationships with a child in say 5th grade and then continue on through middle school and high school—but not always. Many people question whether or not they can be mentors if they don’t have any special expertise or skills to bring to the table. The answer is that most of us who make it to adulthood have a lot more experience and expertise than we give ourselves credit for. You are not there to teach; you are not there to turn your mentee into a nuclear scientist; you are there to be another adult in a child’s life and, along the way, vicariously share a bit of that experience. The only real qualifications are an ability to listen, to be non-judgmental and to be consistently there. 

The rewards of mentoring are many. In exchange for spending about an hour a week over the course of nine months, you will have a chance to re-visit some of the highs and lows of growing up. You will learn all sorts of new stuff that kids are doing, thinking, and talking about today that you knew nothing about. (This is especially true if you are about my age and at least 60 years removed from elementary school). But most importantly, you will have a chance to follow a child, your mentee, along a longitudinal path of growth and maturity. Sometimes you may question where that path is leading, but sometimes you will see that path following an arc influenced by your presence. That is when you will know that the magic happened.

I hope that you will contact your local mentoring program today and consider becoming a mentor yourself. If you’re not sure what the mentoring options are in your community, I encourage you to visit Mobius’ statewide program directory for more information. 

Jim Hyde is a resident of Charlotte and a volunteer mentor for two students through the Connecting Youth programs at Charlotte Central School and Champlain Valley Union High School. He was recently named the 2018 Vermont Mentor of the Year by Comcast and Mobius.