School’s mentor program paying quick dividends

When Hoover Middle School’s principal asked teachers last year to meet with small groups of students every week and monitor their academic progress, Laurie Chalko decided the program needed to go one step further.

“Once I talked to these children, I realized they were not failing due to ability,” said Chalko, who’s been a teacher at Hoover for 24 years. “They were failing due to not getting things they needed in their lives.”

Those missing things included positive one-on-one interaction with an adult – not to just be badgered about their homework, but to share some quality time and be listened to.

So she devised a plan to expand the effort into a more formal mentoring program. Now, there are 31 children at Hoover who meet once week for 30 minutes with a volunteer mentor, usually during lunch.

“It made a difference immediately, just the extra attention, in the ways the kids carried themselves,” Chalko said.

Next year, there will be another 40 students coming in as seventh-graders who have already been identified for the program. “I’m going to need a lot of mentors,” Chalko said.

The only requirement to be a mentor is to pass the Brevard Public Schools’ volunteer screening, which costs $35, and agree to meet with the child once a week for 30 minutes during their lunch break. Chalko said the mentors already volunteering come from all walks of life. Most are employed full time, as everything from clergy members to military personnel at Patrick Air Force Base. Many have school-age children themselves.

Chalko tries to match students and mentors based on mutual interests, and sometimes the mentors and kids choose to do other activities during their meet-ups besides eat – things like play basketball, write poetry or make crafts.

Justin Ryals, an insurance agent who lives in Melbourne Beach, said he simply enjoys spending time with the seventh-grader he mentors. “Just being a positive person in their life that they know is, for them, enough,” Ryals said. “You don’t have to be superman, you don’t have to be super funny, you don’t have to be a super athlete. Just show up and show you care.”

Many of the children, Chalko said, don’t have involved parents, either by circumstance or by choice.

Some have absent parents and live with a grandparent or other guardian, others have parents who have to work the night shift to make ends meet, and others are separated by divorce or other situations. Nine of the kids are moving on to high school in the fall, and Chalko has arranged for their mentors to move with them.

Another volunteer who lives in Melbourne Beach, Billie Jean Meyers, said she has seen the difference in the kids who are mentored. Their attendance has improved, their grades have improved and, as Chalko mentioned, their self esteem has been boosted.

“That, I think, is pretty much priceless,” Meyers said.

If you’d like more information on being a mentor at Hoover Middle School, contact Laurie

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