It goes without saying that the middle school years can be a roller coaster. While some are exploring new interests, gaining greater independence and thriving, others are grappling with low self-esteem, academic pressures and feeling disconnected from friends and adults.
For today’s preteens, the pressures can feel overwhelming at times. At age 12, Dustin would wander the streets after school to avoid the domestic violence and drug deals taking place in his Pueblo, Colorado, home. He was failing his classes, and homework wasn’t even on his radar.
That’s when Jeremy, an assistant athletic director at a local university, stepped in. As a volunteer mentor with United Way of Pueblo County’s Middle School Mentorship Program, Jeremy’s first goal was to earn Dustin’s trust. It wasn’t easy; Jeremy would meet Dustin for an hour each week at school. After several months of building rapport, Jeremy asked Dustin to start bringing his homework to their weekly meetings. Their next session was spent tackling Dustin’s math assignment. Jeremy was later devastated to hear he scored a 58 out of 100, but Dustin was excited he came close to passing.
The Middle School Mentorship Program, now in its sixth year, helps at-risk youth in grades six through eight who have learning and behavior needs. The middle school years are typically when educators start seeing the first signs that a student may eventually drop out. Guidance and support from a caring adult, like Jeremey, provides kids the emotional and academic support they need to succeed.
Today, more than 100 students from five schools are participating in the program. Approximately 80% of student mentees have shown significant improvement in grades, attendance and behavior. At Pueblo Academy of the Arts, for example, 10 sixth-graders received academic achievement awards thanks to support from their mentors.
“Parents have called requesting the service because they feel it’s that important for their child,” says Andrea Aragon, president and CEO of United Way of Pueblo County. “A lot of times it’s simply sitting down with a kid and asking ‘How’s it going?’ to get them to start talking. Once the mentor-mentee relationship is established, students keep coming back.”
As for Dustin, he’s now in high school. He stays in touch with Jeremy, who cared enough to provide a guiding hand when Dustin needed it the most.