As the coronavirus pandemic continues to make it difficult for people to physically gather, mentoring organizations around the state are figuring out how to stay relevant and connected with Vermont youth.

Pam Quinn is program manager for Twinfield Together Mentoring Program in Plainfield. TTMP oversees community-based and peer mentoring programs, as well as the Everybody Wins! reading program at Twinfield Union School.

She said the pandemic has made it difficult for mentors and mentees to meet.

“A lot of them stopped being able to see each other in March, just like everyone else,” she said on Wednesday.

TTMP’s programs serve about 100 children in grades K-12 served.

Quinn said programs like Everybody Wins! have turned to videoconferencing platforms to bring everyone together.

Under normal conditions, mentors could to come to school to read with their mentees. Now that school visitors are restricted, mentors have turned to Zoom where they can read and play games with mentees in a virtual space.

Quinn said kids look forward to their weekly visits with their mentors. And while a Zoom call may not be the same, it gives them something to look forward to.

“They know that their mentor is still there,” she said.

Quinn said mentors who are feeling Zoom fatigue have opted to start pen-pal notebooks or sending video messages to mentees.

“Our goal usually is to have that personal one-on-one connection,” she said. “Now, we’re just trying to keep connections going, so we’re kind of doing whatever people can do.”

Quinn mentioned that the organization has set up a mentoring tent outside school as well so a mentor could connect with a mentee during the day. Her hope is to give the pairs at least one in-person meeting before colder weather forces everyone inside — and online.

TTMP’s peer-based program, which pairs high schoolers with younger kids has also gone virtual since Twinfield High School students are housed in a different building than the lower grades.

The community-based program, meanwhile, is allowed to hold socially distanced meetups if everyone involved is comfortable with that option.

Quinn acknowledged that this is a hard time for kids. She said despite the fact that kids need mentors now more than ever, she has not been actively recruiting mentors since making matches virtually is not ideal. Still, she welcomed anyone who was interested.

“After the pandemic is all over, I think this is going to be a great time for people to get involved because kids, our society’s not in a great spot right now,” she said.

At Twinfield, Quinn said she and fellow educators are working to make sure all students are feeling connected and having their social-emotional needs met.

“I think that we all know this from the pandemic, that the human connection is really important,” she said. “Anyway, people can feel connected, whether it’s adults feeling connected by joining the Zoom call or the kids feeling connected, I think mentoring is going to continue to foster how to keep people connected.”

Like Quinn, Chris Hultquist, executive director of the Mentor Connector, also in Rutland, acknowledged the stress the pandemic has put on kids.

“Our youths are really at a higher stress level than any other time that we’ve seen before,” he said on Wednesday.

He said he expects childhood trauma rates to “dramatically increase over the next few months.”

Hultquist noted Department for Children and Families data from the spring that showed a steep drop in reports of abuse and neglect.

According to DCF data, reports dropped nearly 50% in the first two weeks of April compared to last year.

The decline can be attributed to the switch to remote learning, which kept children out of schools where mandatory reporters would notice signs of abuse and neglect.

Hultquist said the Mentor Connector has been keeping in touch with youth virtually via platforms like Zoom and Google Meet.

The organization works with young people ages 5-25 through one-on-one, group and family mentoring.

According to Hultquist, the organization serves around 180 young people per year with the help of approximately 260 annual volunteers.

He said mentors and mentees have the option to meet in person or virtually.

This spring, the Mentor Connector led the Out of the Box initiative that distributed around 10,000 activity boxes to kids in Rutland County as well as parts of Addison and Bennington Counties throughout the summer.

Hultquist said the organization is “tweaking” the concept to continue to support youth.

“We’re looking at creating those virtual platforms where matches can actually get to know each other, but they’ll have activities that they can do together that are kind of like the prepackaged activities,” he said. “So then they can really focus on the getting to know each other as opposed to focusing on the activity.”

Hultquist said the pandemic has created an opportunity to leverage the resources of the Vermont Youth Project of Rutland County — a group of about 45 different organizations, community members and stakeholders focused on youth issues — to better engage youth and make them feel included at a time when they might be getting lost amid the many issues vying for adults’ attention during the pandemic.

“Parents are losing their jobs, people are scrambling for money,” he said. “I feel like youths are just kind of like the silent participants in the background, getting a lot of the brunt of the stress, but not really able to actively kind of let us know, what they are needing right now.”

To that end, Hultquist said he wants to create a youth council in Rutland where young people can open a dialogue with adults and seek help for how to mitigate the stressors in their lives.

Hultquist sees a silver lining to the pandemic in how to better engage youth in the community.

“A lot of us are really looking at how we can we can rethink youth work because a lot of it had been where we do one service somebody else does, another service and we’re kind of all spread out,” he said. “Over the past six months, we really have a lot of conversations on what does that look like? And how can we collaborate better to be able to supplement each other?”

While technically not a mentoring organization, the Boys & Girls Club of Rutland County has continued to provide out-of-school care for local youth during the pandemic.

The Rutland club on Merchants Row is open weekdays as a remote-learning site where students can access WiFi and receive help with schoolwork and meals.

The site follows the same health and safety guidelines as schools.

David Woolpy, executive director, said the club will receive money from the state’s new child care hub grant program. Last month, the state dedicated $12 million in federal relief money to fund a statewide network of child care hubs for school-age children who are learning remotely.

In addition to the Rutland site, the club is running programs at Barstow Memorial School in Chittenden weekdays from noon to 5:30 p.m., and Fair Haven Grade School during the school day.

Woolpy said attendance at the Rutland site has been low so far, but turnout in Fair Haven has been “pretty good.”

Overall, he said the club has been regularly seeing about 30-40 kids during the pandemic, about half the normal number.

“I think people … are a little hesitant to send their child to a place with other children inside when they’re already avoiding school to avoid the virus,” Woolpy said, adding that he thinks people will get more comfortable with the idea as the school year progresses.

Visit www.mentorvt.org to find mentoring opportunities in your community.

Disclosure: Publisher and Editor Steven Pappas takes part in the Twinfield Union School mentoring program of Everybody Wins!

jim.sabataso

@rutlandherald.com

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