For six years now, Evangel Assembly has been partnering with Daniel B. Brunton Elementary School in Springfield, pairing at-risk students with caring church members for one-on-one mentoring sessions each week. It's all part of Kids Hope USA, a program that seeks to pass on hope and encouragement to students whose academic success is threatened by things like transience, poverty, family health issues, and domestic violence. Research has shown that 99% of the children who participate in Kids Hope USA benefit in some measurable way – either in improved classroom behavior, better grades, or simply a more positive attitude. Teachers and administrators at Brunton are quick to confirm that the program works. They're seeing these positive changes in their classrooms first hand.
Currently, sixteen members of Evangel Assembly participate in Kids Hope USA. Each has attended a three-hour training session and has passed a background check. Most meet with their student during the lunch hour, or first thing in the morning. All are whole-heartedly committed to these important weekly sessions.
Lisa Marie Mikkola has been volunteering with Kids Hope USA for a year now and is a strong supporter of the program. She admits she has a real heart for kids – especially those at risk of "falling through the cracks". Mikkola says she, too, was "at risk" growing up, and understands what it's like to struggle academically. For her, help came in the form of a teacher who introduced her to the performing arts in sixth grade. But Mikkola wishes the help had come sooner. She wants to reach kids at a younger age and convey to them, first hand, the message that they are loved and have potential.
Last year, Mikkola met with a first grader named Sarah* who was extremely quiet and shy in the beginning. Mikkola did her best to draw Sarah out, though, bringing games, books, and even puppets for the time they spent together. The effort paid off, and Mikkola believes the session with the puppets, in particular, was a real turning point in their relationship.
In time, Mikkola learned about Sarah's family. She made notes of their names and remembered to ask about them. She paid attention to other details in Sarah's life, too – her love of reading, the school projects she was assigned, and the kinds of things she was learning in class. Toward the end of the year, Mikkola even helped Sarah with a class project, and when Sarah's mother couldn't make it to the event where these projects were unveiled, Mikkola stepped in and attended in her place. Mikkola says that the joy on Sarah's face when she spotted Mikkola in the crowd more than compensated for the time it took to attend the ceremony. That was when Mikkola first realized she was really making a difference in the girl's life.
When asked what makes a good Kids Hope USA volunteer, Mikkola is quick to answer, "a good listener." She believes volunteers should want to be with kids and enjoy their company.
Which is no problem for Mikkola, who loves children.
But, Kids Hope USA volunteers also need to be flexible. According to Mikkola, they should be able to put the student first – ahead of their own agenda – and be sensitive to the direction the child wants to go. That may be hard for some people, but it's important. "It really is about the kid," Mikkola stresses.
And, while Mikkola will be paired with the same student this coming year, she warns that volunteers should guard against getting too attached. The families these children belong to are often transient, and there's no guarantee they'll be at the school for long. In fact, the first child Mikkola was paired with moved before Mikkola ever got to meet her.
Still, these are small inconveniences when contrasted with the positive role mentors play in the lives of these children. Consistent meetings with a caring adult provide a valuable sense of stability. And, according to Mikkola, mentoring sets these students apart in a positive way. "They feel special being part of the Kids Hope USA program," she says. "It makes them feel important."
For Mikkola, that is the heart of Kids Hope USA, and something she's proud to be a part of. In her opinion, every child has a lot to offer. Sometimes they just need someone to help bring that out.
*Actual name of the child has been changed.