Mentoring program pairs volunteers with Drury eighth-graders

LANESBOROUGH — After watching Ramblewild Program Director Luke Bloom for 15 minutes explaining how to use the harness and clip systems for the wooded aerial park, Carolyn Brooks was ready to climb. Sort of.

She watched Dakota Chrisman climb up with ease onto a wooden practice platform, then paused when it came to her turn.

Brooks, the coordinator of the new Berkshire Family YMCA Northern Berkshire Mentoring Program, looked at Chrisman. "How does this go again?"

The Drury High School eighth-grader bent down and walked Brooks through the steps, helping her mentor up a ladder, onto the platform and over to the tightrope suspended a few feet above the ground that they would both cross next.

Brooks watched Chrisman effortlessly traverse the line. Following behind with staggered footing and a tight grip on the safety line above her, she called out to Chrisman, "You've got to give me courage."

As she crossed, another student mentee, Caleb Vittorio-Ballard, called out to Brooks, "See? You've got it! You're moving right along."

About an hour earlier, Brooks told a reporter about her vision for the new yearlong mentoring program, which pairs community volunteers with eighth-grade students from Drury.

"The first goal is that the student mentees see, in this context, the adults as vulnerable, that we're all human. That breaks down barriers," she said. "I also want us all to feel like a group and to get a little insight into the person we're matched with."

The Berkshire Family YMCA this year received a $30,000 grant from Berkshire Taconic Foundation, Greylock Federal Credit Union and The Green Asche Family used in part to hire Brooks to help coordinate volunteers and funding for the program. The mentoring initiative is designed to provide more social and academic support for students in North Adams, at no cost to them. The program has received additional grants, including $1,500 from the Rotary Club of North Adams and $3,500 from National Grid, in what Brooks calls "an ongoing quest to help support this program to ensure it can continue for years to come."

After collecting 20 student applications and several applications from potential mentors, Brooks worked to match adults and students by interests, goals and availability to meet on a weekly basis.

Vittorio-Ballard signed up for the program with the prospect of "getting out of the house and getting over my fear of heights."

He said he is looking forward to checking in with his mentor, Charles "Chip" Lovett, a retired Williams College chemistry professor, and the other adults in the group.

"I think this is a good opportunity," Vittorio-Ballard said. "You've got adults teaching you what they know. [We're] getting into our teenage years where we have to learn stuff about getting out into the world on your own. It'll be good to have adults who are trying to be supportive of your decisions but who don't push you to do things you don't want to do, and to have some trust. That isn't something I have, so it'll be good for me to have trust."

Sharing common interests

Vittorio-Ballard said he aspires to be a construction worker, experience that his mentor, Lovett, gained before working in academia.

Lovett admitted that he's a "little nervous" since he is the oldest mentor in the group and Vittorio-Ballard is the same age as some of Lovett's grandkids. But, Lovett said, "I'm looking forward to sharing in new activities and common interests."

In the case of mentoring partners, Elijah Goodermote and Phil Malm of Northern Berkshire EMS, Goodermote said, "the tables are turned."

The eighth-grader spent the summer mentoring younger students at a summer camp. Now, he is the mentee, but, he said, he likes knowing that someone like Malm will have his back.

"I wish I could've had a mentor when I was younger. I think this is great," Malm said.

Henasie Crisp, another eighth-grader, said she previously had a Williams College student mentor named Marykate. "But she's not really my mentor anymore. She's like my best friend."

Crisp said she didn't like Marykate at first, but said the older student put in the effort to get to know her, buying her little gifts for her birthday and listening with care when they would meet up. To this day, Marykate still writes letters to Crisp, and visits to shoot hoops with the aspiring basketball player when she is back in the Berkshires.

With the start of a new program, Crisp said she is "excited" to meet someone new and be in a group with fellow students.

"I used to get into trouble a lot. This keeps me out of trouble. That's why I do sports, too," she said.

Sept. 15 marked the official kickoff of the Berkshire Family YMCA Northern Berkshire Mentoring Program, with meetings scheduled for Wednesdays and Saturday field trips at the end of the month. Brooks said the trip to Ramblewild helped to set the tone for the year.

The field trip was sponsored by Feronia Forward, the charitable umbrella for the park's parent company, Feronia Forests.

Paolo Cugnasca, managing director for Feronia Forests and executive director for Feronia Forward, was on hand to meet the group. He said he hoped the trip not only gave the eight students and eight mentors a fun day outdoors, but "a sense of self-importance, self-esteem and teamwork."

Ramblewild's Luke Bloom, who is trained in leadership in group development, offered constant encouragement for the group to look not to him for help, but to look both within and to one another to gain support.

Bloom prompted the group by asking, "How do you guys own your piece of the puzzle to be successful? Throughout the year, you will draw strength from each person in this group, depending on the situation you're in."

To learn more about the Berkshire Family YMCA Northern Berkshire Mentoring Program or to become a mentor, contact Carolyn Brooks at 413-464-6763.


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