Pulling up to a public housing complex on a Saturday morning, two sullen kids sit outside in the snow awaiting their adult mentor.
“Ever gone sledding?” No.
“Ever built a snowman?” No.
“Ever had a snowball fight? No.
By the end of the day, the 8- and 10-year-old siblings had done all those typical kid things for the first time and could not stop smiling and laughing.
For the mentor, the positive vibe is priceless, and all he did was play outdoors like usual.
“Sharing your life with a new friend, that is what being a mentor is all about,” said Kelly Unrein, youth program director for the Piñon Project. “It is actually that simple, and the benefits to the child last a lifetime.”
Volunteer mentors are needed for the program, especially adult males. Currently there are 35 kids waiting to be matched with a new friend, Unrein said.
“People have the wrong impression that they have to be a guidance counselor or affluent or have a degree, but being a mentor is not about that. It means donating time in your life to spend with a young person sharing positive experiences and activities together.”
There is a vetting process for mentor candidates, who must be 21 years or older and pass a background check.
Then meetings are set up with children and young adults between the ages of 7 and 17 to find them a good mentor match.
Mentor Dotty Chadwick gets as much joy from spending time with her new friend as the child does spending time with a caring adult.
“She has so much energy and has a warm spirit,” Chadwick said. “We enjoy music together and dance, and she really meshed well with me and my family from the beginning.”
Mentoring is straight out of the “It takes a village” ethos, fostering community bonds with the ultimate goal of helping out local kids who need more adult influences and variety in their lives.
“It is like an extended parenting group and gives them exposure to different possibilities out there,” Chadwick added. “Parents have to work so hard these days, and they have less and less time, so that is where the community can step in and help.”
The Piñon Project stepped in to offer accredited mentoring services after Partners folded in 2010.
Mentors go through training before their match, and are supported throughout with ongoing guidance and scheduled events for them and the child. They are asked to commit three hours per week for one year with their new charge, but many go beyond as needed, or just to enjoy the simple fun that is unique to youth.
“Studies show disadvantaged kids who are fortunate to have a mentor are 47 percent less likely to participate in high-risk behaviors,” said Jami Dennison, a Piñon Project Youth coordinator. “They become less prone to violence.”
Retired professionals, artists, coaches, musicians, carpenters, cooks, housewives, empty nesters, writers, farmers, lawyers, boaters, athletes, outdoorsy types, teachers, Peter Pan types, gardeners, inventors, thespians, archeologists, policeman, firefighters, medical professionals, aunts, uncles, friends and relatives all make good mentors, to name a few.
“It is about just being yourself, being a good role model,” said Larry Easterling, a family advocate for the Piñon Project. “You don’t have to rearrange your life, you can teach by just being who you are.”
And for the kids with mentors who would otherwise miss out on playing at the park, seeing a movie, going on an adventure, or tubing down the Dolores River, their gratitude is apparent, even if unspoken.