GREAT BARRINGTON — Nearly a quarter of Monument Valley Regional Middle School is involved in a growing program that's neither based on athletics or the arts.
There, 44 students serve as peer mentors to other youths in the school, meaning 44 kids might feel an extra bit of assurance, knowing that someone is there to look out for them.
"That's a powerful number," said Monument Valley Principal Ben Doren, during a ceremony held last month to honor the mentors' work during the school-year.
The program has been running seven years strong, thanks to school adjustment counselor Dom Sacco, who operates the program by recruiting students to participates as either mentors or mentees, teaching faculty and staff about the program, and setting up training sessions with parents and community partners, including Emerson Badessa, youth development manager for Berkshire South Regional Community Center.
Sacco also works with a growing group of parent mentors who support the students mentoring pairs, as well as other parents in the school.
Students learn to break the ice with each other when they first meet. They learn to ask questions to get to know each other. In most cases, the pairs develop a sense of trust and comfort, making it easier and natural for the younger students to turn to their older mentors for anything, be it help with homework or help through a tough time at home. In turn, the mentors are trained by the school and community experts to know when they can support a mentee with their time and encouragement and when to ask a trusted parent mentor or counselor for help with more serious issues, say if the young student is chronically depressed or is involved with substance abuse.
"We want kids to come to school and feel safe and supported," Sacco said. "These mentors and our parent mentors do a tremendous job with that."
Mentor meetings are less prescriptive and more intuitive.
John Arias, now a rising eighth-grader and Jordan Mielke, who will be entering sixth-grade, made a weekly appointment with each other to catch up on Thursdays and play soccer or shoot hoops in the school gymnasium.
Mielke said he'd like to see more Monument Valley students involved in a mentoring partnership. "Then other people can have the experience, which is good. I think I'm going to be a mentor next year."
Susan Jennings thanked Carly Terranova, who's now a high school student, for previously mentoring her daughter, Faye Ross, a rising seventh-grader. Jennings said Terranova and other mentors embody three key practices — generosity, curiosity and empathy.
"It helped my daughter feel comfortable and loved," Jennings said.
Terranova said she was at a low-point when Sacco asked her to be a mentor. She found as she was helping others her life was also enriched. "Being a mentor help me grow up into being a positive more responsive person," she said. "It turned my life around by showing me a side of myself didn't know existed."