Learning life lessons through student mentor program

October 4, 2012

By Christina Corrales-Toy

Newcastle resident Larry Betsch spends one hour a week, every week, being a kid again.

Sometimes he reads a book, other days he plays basketball. But it’s safe to say, whatever it is, it’s usually the highlight of his week.

Betsch does not do it alone, though. He does it with his mentee, a student at Dimmitt Middle School in the Renton School District.

It’s all a part of the Communities in Schools of Renton Mentor Program. The program pairs adult mentors from the community with Renton School District students in grades three through 12 who may need a little more attention, for whatever reason.

“Our primary goal is to keep these kids in school by providing them with a mentor,” said Mara Fiksdal, the program’s manager. “The cool thing about Communities in Schools of Renton is that our whole purpose for being is to surround the child with a community of support to help get them through school.”

Betsch, who has been with the same mentee for the past five years, said he sees the program as a chance for students to get some one-on-one time.

“It’s really an opportunity to afford a student, irrespective of their age, an hour a week during the school year to get someone’s undivided attention,” he said.

The program pairs the mentors and mentees based on similar interests. So, naturally, Betsch, a big sports fan, was placed with an active boy when he began with the program five years ago.

When the two meet, they’ll often do active things, such as play basketball or throw a football around.

The two talk about everyday things as well. Whether it is homework, life or current events, not a meeting goes by that Betsch isn’t fulfilled by the experience.

“Rarely is there a meeting that goes by where I don’t say, ‘How about that? I learned something,’” he said. “I not only learn something about my mentee but I learn something about life.”

Fiksdal said students in the program tend to show positive improvements in their schooling.

“We survey our kids every year and I would say 99 percent of the students, parents and teachers love it and really see a lot of growth in the students,” she said. “They see a lot of, you know, students who were not engaged in school, becoming engaged in school, or students who had trouble with attendance and suspension, coming to school and not getting suspended.”

Betsch said he believes his mentee has benefitted from the program, but he refuses to take all of the credit. Most of it, he said, should go to his mentee’s parents.

“I’m not the ultimate mentor, his parents are,” he said. “By no means am I suggesting that I am anything but a very small part, an hour a week during the school year, of anything that he is accomplishing. That’s his parents. I’m just there as somebody else that is supporting them.”

When Betsch talks about watching his mentee grow up and advance through school, he gets emotional. Betsch wants to be there to see his mentee graduate from high school and move on. It’s a commitment that he is truly passionate about.

“It’s the smallest investment I have ever made with the largest return that I will ever have,” he said. “To see him and to watch him grow and know that each week I get to see him for an hour, I get to hear about his life and how he’s doing in school, that’s the return.”

It’s the impact of that return that often takes mentors by surprise, Fiksdal said.

“That’s probably, I think, the neatest part about the program, is how much the mentors actually change and how much mentors get out of it,” she said. “I think they are always surprised about that. You know, they think they’re going in and they’re going to help this kid in need and what ends up happening is that the mentors gain so much insight.”

The program currently has more than 100 mentors. They are all volunteers from the community who commit just an hour of their time each week to make an impact in a child’s life, Fiksdal said.

Mentors must go through a thorough application process, including a background check, before they are paired with students.

Fiksdal is currently seeking volunteers, especially in the Newcastle area, to become mentors.

“I think Newcastle, because of its proximity to Renton, is a great place for people to get involved,” she said.

Betsch said he will do whatever he can to champion the program that has had such a meaningful impact on his life.

“Participating in a young person’s life, just listening, is not hard,” he said. “You will never be sorry for doing it, you just won’t. It’s a no-lose situation. I’ll just keep selling it every chance that I get.”


What to know

To become a mentor, contact Mara Fiksdal at 430-6659 or mfiksdal@rentonwa.gov.

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