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Mentoring With Meaning

Mossy Creek Elementary School mentors are changing students’ lives 30 minutes at a time.

Those 30 minutes are spent playing games, reading or just talking, said Mossy Creek counselor Shari Hooper, who started the program in 2012 in the hopes of reaching more students in need of support.

Students in grades three through five are selected by a leadership team, which includes the principal and teacher representatives, who look at data on students who have behavioral issues, low attendance or need motivation. Those students are then paired with a mentor.

“We’re talking about a group that just is underperforming, that has the ability but is either not motivated or just doesn’t have the scores, doesn’t have whatever it takes to be on grade level,” Hooper said. “They think these mentors are like movie stars, they love them.”

This is real estate agent Cherise d’Abadie’s second year as a mentor and, at first, she was skeptical that half an hour would have any effect on a student’s grades or their life. But at the end of last year, when her fifth-grader confided to her that she was being abused at home, she realized that consistently being there for a child who otherwise might not be supported can make a significant difference.

“It really reinforced to me just how little it takes to build trust with a child and to be able to help them in a meaningful way,” d’Abadie said. “All it really took for me was to just turn up consistently for her for half an hour a week.”

The mentor program began with around 10 participants and is now up to almost 60. Those mentors don’t have to be residents of North Augusta or parents of Aiken County students. They just need to have 30 minutes to spend with a child every week.

Hooper said there is no stigma against students with a mentor, and since the meetings often take place at tables in the hallway, the program is visible to children walking by.

Along with undergoing Aiken County volunteer training and background checks, potential mentors meet with Hooper for one hour before they can start meeting with their student. Hooper said she has seven children with completed permission slips who are waiting for a mentor.

"I have 640 kids with one counselor, so that was another reason I wanted to do the mentoring,” Hooper said. “This is a way to kind of reach out to kids so they get seen every week. It’s not me, but I’m in contact with these mentors and they can let me know what’s going on.”

According to data from 2017 that tracked the math scores of 14 students with mentors during the school year, 10 improved their scores, while four remained the same. The majority of the students said they felt better about their grades after spending time with a mentor.

Hooper said the program is not meant to tutor students, but to provide them with a supportive relationship that can help boost their self-confidence.

Writer Christine Deriso witnessed that firsthand last year, when she was a mentor to a fifth-grade boy who would look down and talk into his hand. After a few weeks, she said, he was laughing and playing games with her.

“I just think every child can benefit from one-on-one attention and a focus that’s totally stress-free and pressure-free,” Deriso said. “We don’t have any demands or expectations, there are no benchmarks we want them to aim for, we just want them to enjoy school more than they might otherwise enjoy it and feel better about themselves along the way.”

Sarah LeBlanc/The Augusta Chronicle