By KAITLYN NAPLES
What started out in 1989 as a mentoring partnership between the business community and the schools, has evolved into one of the top two mentoring programs in Connecticut.
Jeanine Audette, district coordinator of Mentor and School to Business Partnership Programs for the Bristol Board of Education, said there are 200 mentors in the program and five recently joined this month, which is also the state’s Mentoring Month.
“It has just grown into something much bigger” from when it started, Audette said. She added that Fred Soliani was the brains behind the mentoring program in Bristol, which is now one of the top three oldest programs in the state.
“It’s a really great program because of the response we get from the business community, and the community at large,” Audette said, adding she has been a mentor for 11 years and is friends with her first mentee, who is now in college.
“You really realize some of the challenges that are out there in the schools,” Audette said about the experience of mentoring, and added that “it gives you a deeper understanding and appreciation for what you have.”
She added that seeing the mentees smile and “are so happy to see you” makes the mentoring program that much more special.
The mentoring program includes 225 students from all of the schools in Bristol, students who are “on the brink of success who may need that special friend, or extra motivation in their life to achieve their goals,” Audette said, adding, “Who doesn’t?”
She said there are many businesses in Bristol who have employees who mentor, like ESPN, Webster Bank and more. The mentors meet with their mentees once per week at their schools and do various activities like crafts, reading, play games, and more.
“I’ve seen a lot of great things happen through the program,” Audette said, adding the reason the program has been sustainable is because of the success that has come out of it.
Susan Everett, administrative assistant at the Board of Education, has been mentoring for 10 years and even has a brother and sister she mentors.
Everett said she would do different activities with the sister like play different games, and do various craft activities that she would do with her own girls at home.
“There were things that I never even thought twice about, like reading a bedtime story, that these students don’t necessarily get at home,” Everett said.
The brother she was mentoring has ultimately become a part of her family, she said. She joined Big Brothers Big Sisters with her two mentees so they could do even more together, such as go to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass..
Everett said she has enjoyed her time as a mentor, as it has reminded her not to take things in her life for granted.
“We are so blessed, so we should share that with others,” Everett said, adding that being a mentor and that extra person in a child’s life is so special and they appreciate it so much “even if it is just for that hour each week, they look forward to that.”
Everett said she looks forward to mentoring just as much as the students enjoy it.
“It’s the time for you to act like a kid again too, and its okay,” she added.
Audette said last year there were seven mentors who had been in the program for 15 years, and said once they get involved they usually make that commitment to stay with the program. She said when someone is looking to volunteer, they must have the commitment to the program and the students, and make sure the location is convenient for them. She said mentors can request a specific age or gender but it isn’t necessary, and the mentors fill out an application and are matched up with students based on their application.
“Our mentors always say they get more than they give,” Audette said, adding since she has been a mentor she said she feels it has helped her to be a better person.
“Everyone needs that person in their life to believe in them and support them and give them that motivation,” Audette said. “Mentors make their mentees value who they are, and that is so important.”
Former Mayor Bill Stortz has been a mentor since 1991, when he was mayor of the city. He said his first mentee was in fifth grade at the time and took about one year of mentoring before he opened up to Stortz and they began forming a relationship. About 23 years later Stortz and his first mentee are still friends and meet for coffee once in a while. Stortz said when he had a heart attack his mentee visited him with a card that said, “Thank you for being a father I never had.”
“The response comes in strange ways,” Stortz said, adding it might take years before a student realizes the impact mentoring has made on his or her life.
Stortz said he is working with his fifth mentor right now, and said he would encourage anyone interested in becoming a mentor to remember to “be patient and understanding” with the students, as they can be reluctant to bond with you at first.
After nearly 23 years of mentoring, Stortz said the students keep him involved in the mentoring program.
“They need what this program offers,” he said, adding the rewards he gets in return are “fantastic.”
“It’s the satisfaction of helping someone else and giving back to the people who helped me years ago,” he said, adding it is his way of paying it forward. He added the impact mentors make on the children will ultimately be a long-lasting memory.
With his past mentees, Stortz said he has played games and played sports with them, and most importantly has provided a sympathetic ear.
“The children need someone to pay attention to them,” he said, adding that they might not get as much attention at home as they need.
Stortz said the program has been well run throughout the years, and has offered a lot of support for mentors who may be new or may need some extra guidance and suggestions to work with their mentees. He also credited Bristol and Jeanine Audette for running the program and making it one of the largest in the state.
“That’s the nature of Bristol” to volunteer and lend a helping hand, he added.
Anyone interested in learning more about the mentoring program or becoming a mentor should contact Audette at (860)584-7043 or JeanineAudette@ ci.bristol.ct.us.
By KAITLYN NAPLES