Local adults volunteer to mentor Grand County students for an hour a week throughout the school year. [Grand Area Mentoring]

Thank you for doing activities with me to get over the bad things in my life.

I really appreciate when you help me figure out what to do.

Thank you for always being there and having fun with me, and never being on your cell phone.

Those are a few comments from Grand County School District students who participated in the Grand Area Mentoring program, addressed to the adult mentors who spent an hour a week with them throughout the 2020/2021 school year. The Grand Area Mentoring program matches individual students, who are referred to the program, with an adult mentor from the community who can offer support and guidance.

The mentors and kids, usually matched when the child is in elementary school, might play games, do arts and crafts, or spend time on the playground. Mentors are encouraged to stay with their mentees from school year to school year, and as kids get older, the opportunities expand to field trips to places like restaurants, hiking trails, or community organizations.

Nearly all mentees report being happier due to the program, and parents and teachers notice participants improving their behavior and grades, and growing into themselves. The program usually serves between 70 and 90 students; last year, 69 kids participated. This year, program director Daniel McNeil hopes to recruit more mentors to reach more kids—there are over 20 students on the waiting list. However, he doesn’t focus on the data.

“Numbers just aren’t that helpful,” said McNeil. “What people need to know is that there are individual children who are just looking for guidance in their life.”

After 17 years with the program, McNeil has a wealth of touching success stories: a mentee and mentor who are still in touch, 17 years after being introduced; a child who grew in self-confidence and responsibility by taking care of animals at a local farm; a student who asked a mentor for advice on how to effectively and respectfully express dissatisfaction with a school policy.

While McNeil values the benefits of the program to individual people over statistics, the statistics for Grand Area Mentoring are impressive: 74% of students in the mentoring program have improved behavior, 73% have improved grades, and 63% have improved school attendance. Those metrics outperform by far the objectives set by the U.S. Department of Education for mentoring programs.

One especially telling data point is the average length of time a Grand Area Mentor spends with the same mentee, which is three and a half years. The national average for similar mentorship programs is only about six months. A longer partnership leads to a better outcome for the mentee, McNeil said, adding,

“It really speaks to the quality of the volunteers we have in Moab. Just amazing, generous, dedicated people. It’s really inspiring.”

McNeil added that mentors also find the program very rewarding. One mentor who volunteered over the last school year said the hour spent with their mentee was one of the most valuable activities of the week. The program offers a connection to young people that mentors might not otherwise have.

“Many of our mentors get a lot of joy out of this,” said McNeil.

The coronavirus pandemic has added extra challenges to the program, as it has for nearly everyone. Directors decided to focus on nourishing the existing relationships between mentors and mentees, rather than on recruiting new mentors, to avoid the risks associated with bringing more people onto school campuses. McNeil acknowledged that 2020/2021 was an especially hard year, with some school classes having to be quarantined for parts of the school year, some families out of work due to the pandemic, and kids still facing the pressures and difficulties present aside from a global pandemic.

This year, Grand Area Mentoring staff are heartened by the success of mask-wearing over the last year and looking to bring on new volunteers. The program will follow the school district’s masking protocols, meaning that right now, all students and mentors are required to wear masks indoors, at least while the current temporary mask mandate endures. Even when that mandate is not in place, Grand Area Mentoring recommends that both adult and student participants wear masks when meeting indoors.

The program has evolved over the years. Last year, Grand Area Mentoring welcomed a new paid staff member, an adult with high-functioning autism, to specifically mentor students with autism. This year, Grand Area Mentoring is launching a new “incentive program.”

With support from the City of Moab and from volunteers, Grand Area Mentoring has put together a “mentor store,” which mentors and mentees can visit to see what’s available. The items can serve as motivation for students to work on specific goals or areas for improvement, like school attendance, grades, or politeness. Mentors can help kids make incremental progress and earn “money” that can be used to purchase items in the mentor store.

“It’s giving these kids an opportunity they might not otherwise have to earn things that they need or that they want—things like clothes or sports equipment,” McNeil explained.

A grant from the county has facilitated another new element to the mentoring program: educational scholarships, which participants can earn by staying in the program through graduation. The first class of students that will be eligible for the $1,000 grants are now sophomores in high school. The grants can be used for tuition, books, travel or other expenses related to postsecondary education.

“That’s extra incentive for them to reach graduation, and also to stay with mentoring, which is important, especially during the adolescent years,” said McNeil. “These kids are kind of gaining more autonomy, which is developmentally appropriate—but that adult presence is still important.”

Anyone interested in becoming a mentor should RSVP to the New Mentor Orientation on Sept. 30 from 5 to 7 p.m. The session will cover what it means to be a mentor, and pizza will be served. It’s an opportunity to find out if mentoring is a good fit: it does require a one-hour-a-week commitment for the entire school year, so it might not be the right volunteer opportunity for people who frequently travel, for example. The orientation is a no-commitment information session. To RSVP, call 435-260-9646.

“This is targeted toward the kids who really need some good luck in their lives,” said McNeil. “If we can bring mentors who have a surplus of luck to share, that’s what we want to do.”