CALDWELL — Caldwell Police Chief Frank Wyant and Michael, an eighth-grader at Syringa Middle School, play Totika — a game similar to Jenga — in the school cafeteria.
Wyant visits Michael once a week as part of The Mentoring Network’s initiative to provide children with positive adult mentors.
He has visited Michael for about a year now. They have a secret handshake, and unlike any other student in the school, Michael has a Caldwell Police challenge coin.
“Do you have your coin?” Michael asked Wyant.
If one of them shows up to their meeting and is asked to show their coin but doesn’t have it, the person who has their coin has to make them do something.
Once, when Michael didn’t have his coin on him, Wyant made him do a push-up in front of his class. Michael hasn’t been able to catch Wyant without his coin yet, but he already knows what he will make him do if he ever does forget.
There are about seven Caldwell Police officers who volunteer their time to mentor other students who might need a positive adult mentor.
Other members from the community, including city officials, business people and retirees also volunteer their time for the nonprofit. About 170 students meet with mentors, said Donna Shines, director of The Mentoring Network.
Mentors spend one hour per week one-on-one during the school day with a student who was recommended by the school’s counselor. For 20 years, The Mentoring Network has been using adults as mentors to improve at-risk students’ attendance, state testing scores, behaviors and self-worth through friendship. The network currently serves five school districts in Canyon and Owyhee County — Caldwell, Nampa, Parma, Homedale and Vallivue. The organization, founded in 1999, gained nonprofit status in 2005, when Shines became director.
When the organization was founded in 1999, it reached rural populations. This proved difficult for finding transportation to get children to beneficial activities. The network used the model of mentors meeting with students while at the school to help with the lack of transportation and the model has stuck ever since.
Since its inception, 609 volunteer mentors have served 722 students through The Mentoring Network. The network now reaches 60 schools.
With just one caring adult, students are more likely to avoid trouble with police and stay away from drugs, Shines said. Shines said 99 percent of students who have stuck with a mentor their entire academic career graduate and stay out of juvenile correction.
Really what it’s about and what most children need is someone to “care, show up and listen,” Shines said.
One hour a week, then more
Pete Rose, 19, lost his mom to breast cancer when he was 3. In 2008, as a third-grader, Rose was matched up with his mentor, and later lifelong friend, Kelli Kennel.
“As a kid you’re a dry sponge, and there’s so many different sources of water that sponge is going to soak up,” Rose said. “It was really good to have her because she was a very stable influence.”
That hour per week turned into more throughout the years as Kennel became a friend and someone Rose considers a second mother. Over 10 years later, they still keep in contact. Some of his favorite memories are the ones where she is pushing him to do things he didn’t think he could, like when he was too afraid to go on the zipline at a camp one summer.
Rose thinks The Mentoring Network is the best model to build communication and community relationships. Just one hour with someone who came to listen to him made the whole difference.
“It saved me from going down a path of which was very dangerous,” he said. “If it wasn’t for her being in my life, I don’t know where I would be today. I don’t know what path I would be taking.”
For Joan and Rex Burmester, who have been mentoring students for the past two years, it’s become more than just a weekly commitment. The Burmesters applied to be mentors after a teacher at Centennial Elementary in Nampa suggested it to Joan.
They had never heard of the organization before but decided to give it a try. First, mentors like Wyant or the Burmesters go through an interview and background check. They must also get recommendations, go through an interview process and receive some training, Shines said. If they succeed in all of those aspects, they get a first meeting with the student they will be mentoring. This system helped the Burmesters feel better prepared going into the weekly meetings at the school.
Ironically, Joan Burmester said, they started with both of their students in Nampa and then both students ended up in Homedale. They log about 60 miles on their vehicle each week during visits, but it’s worth it.
Joan Burmester’s mentee calls her a best friend. Both have been asked to attend outside school programs for their students. When they can, they like to attend.
They both hope they’ll get to follow their mentee to graduation, but that is up to the student and how long they want a mentor.
Creating positive change
Usually, Wyant and Michael don’t play games when they meet. They sit and catch up since the last time they met.
“High, low,” Wyant said to Michael.
When they meet, both share their “high” point, or favorite moment, since the last time they met, and their “lowest” point.
Michael still hopes to catch Wyant one day without his coin. If he does, he thinks he will make Wyant walk into a random class and say, “Sorry, wrong class.”
“I think he cares about me,” Michael said about Wyant and the times they get to hang out.
Knowing that, Wyant said, makes him realize that being a mentor is helpful.
It doesn’t matter the background of an adult — police officer, business owner, retiree — Shines said having a caring adult who listens to a child creates that positive change.