When a national mentorship program that pairs older, skilled adults with children ages 11 to 13 launched in Frederick County this month, it was a little different — it had to be.
The population in Frederick County is experiencing a big shift: The number of immigrants in the county increased 18 percent and spiked from 21,947 foreign-born residents in 2014 to 25,896 in 2015, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. As the county’s population continues to grow, about a third of that growth is the result of international migration.
Efforts from local institutions to respond to these evolving communities’ needs have worked to grow accordingly, but the needs are many and varied. Frederick County Public Schools has added 35 new English Learner teacher positions from 2010 to 2017 for the growing population of students whose first language is something other than English. Complementing the work of other organizations, this year multiple local nonprofits came together to make accessible a resource that traditionally might have been available only to wealthy, well-connected students: mentorship.
“Most [existing] mentorship programs are pretty much mainstream, so immigrant families have no idea where to find mentors or what mentors are about,” said Elizabeth Chung, executive director of the Asian American Center of Frederick and one of the nonprofits supporting this mentorship program. “And we know that to be successful, you need at least five mentors in your life.”
Frederick County’s first iteration of the mentorship program Across Ages adds an element of intentional multicultural recognition and encouragement, embracing the county’s shifting demographics and reflecting the growing societal importance of cultural competency.
The program has paired 15 sixth-graders who attend West Frederick Middle School with 15 adult mentors, who are all retired community members interviewed and vetted by organizers. FCPS refers students who struggle with behavioral or attendance problems and are from low-income households to the nonprofits, which then pair mentors and students according to interests and academic needs.
One of the adult mentors, Jim Monroe, an elementary school classroom volunteer and a retired solar engineer, talks about basketball with his student mentee and is diligently trying to learn from him how to play video games such as Fifa. The relationship is one of give-and-take, and the two are starting to get to know each other with trips to the YMCA, another local nonprofit that has contributed to the mentorship program by providing free membership for both mentor and mentee.
“You can get that ‘aha’ moment for kids when they catch on to something,” Monroe said. “I like the fit. I know he plays basketball, so I check up on his games, and I can help him with his math where he’s having some difficulty sometimes.”
But it’s also a mutually beneficial relationship, Chung said.
“So take Mr. Monroe, for example. He retired, and he would really give back to the community. So what’s a better way to bring their lifelong experience to this kid?” Chung said. “And then we hope this kid will look up to him and see that, ‘wow, this is someone really nurturing, compassionate,’ and they want to be with them.”
The program is structured to include at least two to four hours of time spent with student mentees each week, students participate in some form of community service biweekly, there are workshops for parents on weekends and a curriculum for students that teaches life and resistance skills.
The National Mentorship Partnership identifies a national “mentoring gap” between affluent students who likely have friends, family and a network of potential mentors offering guidance and resources that many students don’t have — as many as 1 in 3. Across Ages organizers in Frederick hope to start the work of bridging that gap.
But getting the program off the ground has meant overcoming language and cultural barriers, including hesitance from parents themselves. Tessie Peifer, program coordinator at the Retired Senior Volunteers Program, another nonprofit supporting the mentorship program, said she had to push past phone calls with parents that went so poorly they sometimes resulted in dead silence on the other end of the line.
“It’s about cross-cultural understanding,” Chung said. “The families were worried. It’s not common to them, letting the boy or girl go somewhere with someone they don’t know. So it took a lot of staff time to make sure they understand the need. We took this on as a challenge, because no one has done this before.”
The program is supported by a three-year Corporation for National Community Services grant. Organizers hope to develop the program further in the coming years and expand it to include more students at more schools in the county.