Our SMILES Program Continues to Grow!

Our SMILES Program Continues to Grow!

Formed in 2003 to counter the area’s chronically high dropout rate, the South Coast Mentoring Initiative for Learning, Education and Services (SMILES) continues to grow. The program’s goal is to have an impact on all high-risk students in the region’s school systems. SMILES continues to have a strong base in its original New Bedford and Fall River School systems, as well as schools programs in Westport.

In 2010, People, Incorporated took over the small, grass-roots non-profit, helping to make it a more sustainable program with a continued focus on supporting children and families within the South Coast community.
Traditional SMILES mentoring takes place at the junior high and high school level. Mentors are paired up one-on-one with mentees and they participate in activities designed to be fun and engaging for both parties. Literary-based mentoring, for grades 1-5, allows mentors to help a student work on their individual needs whether it is reading, math or any other subject they struggle with.

More Help Needed

Pam O’Neill, People Inc.’s Vice President of Communications and Administration, said efforts are currently underway to increase the number of mentors they have, thus creating opportunities for more children to benefit from a mentor/mentee relationship. At the end of the 2013-14 school year, there were 173 mentors at 21 schools in New Bedford, Fall River and Westport. But with thousands of at-risk school children in the South Coast, so many more mentors are needed, and now.

“We are looking to get the word out to local employers about the benefits of mentoring for children in our local communities. Our hope is to have employers embrace the mission of SMILES, which is to help at-risk youth realize their personal and educational potential through a large scale one-to-one mentoring program, whereby allowing their employees to take one hour a week out of their schedule to mentor a deserving child,” said O’Neill.

A number of companies in the South Coast already take part in SMILES, including BayCoast Bank, which has more than 25 employees mentoring every week.

“We would like to see each of our programs reach full capacity which would be upwards of 300 matches in the three communities we serve,” said O’Neill. “We are looking to have 45 new mentors by the start of school and a total of 130 by the end of the school year.”

O’Neill said SMILES is important for both mentors and mentees for various reasons depending on each perspective. For mentees, SMILES provides two different mentoring program models each delivering vital benefits depending on the student’s age.

At the elementary school level, O’Neill said the literacy-based model is designed to help students become independent learners with strategies for discovering solutions on their own.

Mentors are encouraged to support their mentee in discovering solutions, solving problems, and finding meaning in their daily literacy work rather than directly giving the solution.

“By providing children with techniques and strategies instead of direction solutions, we are giving them paths of action so that giving up is not an option,” she said. “These techniques and strategies are the first steps in building resiliency not only in the academic setting, but in their day to day lives.”

In the middle schools, the SMILES’ traditional program model takes on a bit of a different approach. O’Neill said they take what the students have learned in the literacy programs to the next level.

“Mentees have begun to learn and develop the skills and qualities necessary to gain individual resiliency. The traditional program model is aligned with the 40 Developmental Assets for adolescents,” said O’Neill, noting that the 40 Developmental Assets are a series of qualities that help influence choices young people make and help them become caring, responsible, successful adults.

“We want students to leave our program ready and able to tap into their strengths, cope and recover from adversity and be prepared for future challenges,” said O’Neill.

Proven Track Record

Outside of these program models, O’Neill said their statistics show that mentoring in general has been shown to have positive effects in other aspects of at-risk youth’s lives. According to a public/private ventures study conducted on behalf of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, students who meet regularly with their mentors are 52 percent less likely than their peers to skip a day of school and 37 percent less likely to skip a class. Youth who meet regularly with their mentors are 46 percent less likely than their peers to start using illegal drugs and 27 percent less likely to start drinking. Mentors help young people set career goals and start taking steps to realize them.

Other benefits of mentoring include: feeling great knowing that you are helping a young person to grow in a positive direction and getting the opportunity to meet other volunteers who share your desire to create positive change in our community.

But in the end, statistics aside for the moment, what do the students really get out of this one-on-one mentoring?

“Our program models are designed to equip at-risk youth with tools that they need to succeed in life. Whether they are enhancing their literacy skills or participating in activities that will better prepare them for adulthood, all of our mentees share the same need to have a positive adult mentor in their lives,” said O’Neill.

“By providing mentees with mentors, they are receiving the biggest benefit that SMILES has to offer: a role-model. That is the common thread in both the literacy-based and traditional mentoring program models. It is of paramount importance that a positive, trusting, long-term relationship is established between a mentor and mentee. Without it, the curricula that have been developed for our programs would not be as effective in delivering positive results to mentees.”

Want to hear a few success stories?

O’Neill said they have seen many improvements in the day-to-day lives of the mentees they serve. Mentors work to change the scope of their mentees’ lives in many ways, including adding an heir of positivity and happiness that can only be described on an individual level.

“It is of paramount importance that SMILES recruits mentors who can build successful relationships with at-risk youth and who understand the importance of mentoring,” said O’Neill.

“Lee Snitzer, one of our Fall River mentors, has been a mentor with SMILES for over five years and is someone who truly exemplifies an investment in the value of mentoring,” said O’Neill.

Snitzer is currently paired with a 9th and 10th grader at Durfee High School, a 6th grader at Kuss Middle School and a 5th grader at Greene Elementary School.

A father himself, Snitzer knows the importance of a positive adult role model in a child’s life and strives to be that person during every one of his mentoring sessions with his four mentees.

Snitzer’s newest mentee, Michael, a 9th grader at Durfee High School, was a particular challenge for previous mentors, said O’Neill. Michael was very shy and reserved and would not even speak to some of his previous mentors.

“Knowing the importance of having a positive role model, Lee asked if he could mentor Michael. His experience proved effective as Michael began opening up,” said O’Neill.

“Over the last few months Michael’s attitude has changed dramatically. Lee reported that ‘When Michael started opening up I knew he trusted me. He will talk to me about anything. He is open and we have a good relationship’.”

Now when they meet, O’Neill said Michael and Lee like to discuss possible higher education and career options.

“Having mentors like Lee who truly believe and invest in mentoring are what make it possible for SMILES to continue to help at-risk youth emotionally and academically and transition into adulthood successfully,” O’Neill noted.

Snitzer, 48, told the South Coast Insider that once his own children grew up and went to college, he needed to fill a huge void in his life, a void that he soon filled with SMILES.

“I used to be so involved in my own kids’ lives that I needed to do something,” said Snitzer. “I loved kids so this program was perfect for me.”

But one mentee wasn’t enough. Snitzer now has four mentees ranging in ages from 9 to 15. He participates in both the the literacy and traditional mentoring programs.

“High school is the toughest to find things to do to hold their interest but we find a way,” said Snitzer, a father of three.

“People need to remember that a SMILES mentor is not a teacher or a parent. They are a friend. Unless it’s something that can hurt themselves or someone else, I want to talk about everything with them. And over the years, I’ve heard just about anything.”

Ironically, Snitzer said he can get his SMILES mentees to open up and talk to him far more than he can his own kids.

“These kids have a lot to say; they just don’t know who to say it to. It takes a while for them to open up, but once they do, it’s amazing,” said Snitzer. “They need an adult to talk to and many of them don’t have that. I enjoy it immensely.”

Mentees Becoming Mentors

O’Neill noted that for the 2013-2014 school year, 100 percent of SMILES high school seniors graduated. Among them were brother and sister Freddy and Deysi.

“Freddy and Deysi graduated this past June from B.M.C. Durfee High School in Fall River and have been matched with their mentors Tom and Suzette for seven and five years respectively,” said O’Neill.

“Both Tom and Suzette have greatly impacted Freddy and Deysi’s lives and have truly exemplified an investment in the value of mentoring over the last half-decade.”

Upon the conclusion of each matches’ formal, school-based tenure, O’Neill said SMILES staff had the opportunity to meet with Freddy, Deysi, Tom and Suzette to discuss the effects of their mentoring relationships and the graduates’ plans for the future.

Both Freddy and Deysi hold part-time jobs and are planning to attend Bristol Community College in September. Freddy put the value of his mentoring relationship with Tom into perspective by saying, “I would not be where I am today without Tom. He has helped me so much over the years.” He went on to say how he would also like to be a positive role-model for a child as Tom was to him. “As soon as I figure out my school schedule I would like to mentor a kid because I know how great it makes you feel.”

A classic case of paying it forward and I’m sure there are many, many more like it. But more mentors are needed. If you have an hour each week to spend changing the lives of a South Coast student (only September to June), it’s time to make your mark.

Don’t wait to be asked. These kids can’t wait! Contact SMILES Program Director Aaron Hubley at ahubley@peopleinc-fr.org or call him at 508-679-5233.

Celebrate a Year of Impact at our Annual Awards Dinner!