Thursday, October 16, 2003

Mentoring program plants seeds of success

By William Croyle
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Marqetta Johnson (right), a 7th-grader, plants with Vikki Downing, outreach recruiter for Across Ages.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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COVINGTON - Life's been difficult for 12-year-old Shelly Jackson of Covington.

Her mom passed away. Her dad lives out of town. She lives with her grandma, who is in poor health.

"And I was not getting good progress reports in school," Shelly said.

Enter Betty Deaton of Florence - a 75-year-old mom, grandma, great-grandma and, for the last year, Shelly's mentor.

Betty and Shelly were brought together through a national program known as Across Ages, in which people 55 and older become mentors for sixth- and seventh-grade students.

The program started at Two Rivers Middle School in Covington in 2002, thanks to a $5.7 million Ready to Learn grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The goal is to increase the kids' attendance, raise their grades and reduce violence and substance abuse.

"It's an absolutely wonderful program," said Warner Allen, resource development coordinator for Covington schools. "As our evaluation reflects, kids are coming to school and discipline referrals are coming down."

Since September 2002, absences have declined 14 percent among those in the program at Two Rivers. Discipline referrals have dropped 17 percent.

"Shelly was highly excitable when I first met her," Betty said. "But she's become more mannerly, considerate, has changed her attitude and has raised her self-esteem."

"She's changed a lot," said Shelly's grandma, Maxine Sullivan. "She likes to do more. I think it has really helped her."

Thirty-six students at Two Rivers have mentors this year.

Mentors are recruited by the school's Across Ages staff year-round and go through a training program. Student and mentor typically meet once a week. They do service projects together, such as they did Wednesdaywhen they planted tulip bulbs at the school.

The grant money pays for cultural and educational events. Mentors spend their own money for more leisurely activities, such as going out to dinner.

While the experience is valuable for the kids, it's also meaningful for the mentors.

"It can give them a sense of purpose and expand their horizons," said Kathy Gosney, Across Ages coordinator at Two Rivers. "I had one mentor tell me she never imagined she'd be watching American Idol."

For Shelly and Betty, the experience has been nothing but positive. "She helps me with stuff. I like her a lot," said Shelly.

"It's been a real pleasure," Betty said. "I hope I can be of help to her all of my life."

To become a mentor for Two Rivers students, contact Kathy Gosney at (859) 392-1141.

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