A junior high mentoring group that started in Bloomington has blossomed at half a dozen metro-area schools.
From left, Nicollet Junior High ninth-graders Tatiana Smithson-Brown, McKenzie Roades and Kelsey Roades shared a laugh with mentor Darlene Miller. The program recruits business owners and city officials. Miller owns a precision machining company in Burnsville.
The women who volunteer with Hope for Tomorrow have a rule with the teenage girls they mentor: Everybody has to stand up to talk.
The group meeting last week at Nicollet Junior High in Burnsville was typical for November, when the students are just starting the program: The girls really, really didn't want to stand up. So when they raised their hands during a discussion about peer pressure, eating disorders and other issues they face in school, facilitator Darlene Miller did a lot of coaxing and made a lot of "come on, get up!" hand motions to get the students on their feet.
But Miller has been through this before, and she knows what one year of mentoring can do for a student's confidence and public speaking skills. By spring, she said, "the girls literally just bounce up to talk."
Hope for Tomorrow pairs career women like Miller, who owns a precision machining company in Burnsville, with girls who might benefit from a little extra encouragement to dream big. Miller and others on the group's board of directors are dreaming big, too, with a goal of going national with an organization that started at one school in Bloomington.
Since two Twin Cities businesswomen began Hope for Tomorrow in 1997, the group has spread from Valley View Middle School to half a dozen metro-area schools, including four in Eagan, White Bear Lake, Bloomington and Eden Prairie that launched chapters this fall. Nicollet Junior High is starting the first group for boys this month, and Miller said she's talked with fans who might start chapters at two schools in Illinois.
The groups, which each have about 16 mentor-student pairs, meet once a month for presentations, one-on-one activities, journaling and field trips to a college and a local business during the year before the students enter high school.
For mentors, Hope for Tomorrow has drawn from the ranks of local business owners, city officials and more, while schools recruit the young women. The group isn't looking for troublemakers, Miller said, but rather high-potential students who might be shy, new to school or in an ethnic minority. "There's something that puts them in a position that they may not blossom."
Mentors such as Diane Hagler, who owns a photography studio in Burnsville, say it's the kind of opportunity they wish they'd had as teenagers. "I was once a very shy person," said Hagler, who wanted to join the camera club as a freshman in high school, but "turned and bolted" when she walked in and saw a room full of boys.
The groups laugh together, and sometimes they cry. In at least one instance, a girl found the courage to tell her mentor that she had been abused. (All the mentors go through training, and like school officials, they're required to report abuse cases to authorities.)
Though contact outside school meetings is discouraged during the year, students often stay in touch with the adults when they go on to high school.
Several mentors said rewards like that make the program at least as meaningful to them as to the students. "The first year was a little bit difficult, because it's hard to make a connection when you see them once a month," said mentor Heather Voorhees, who said she worried last year that she wasn't forming a bond with her student. But when the girl showed up to their last meeting in the spring, she gave Voorhees a basket with candy and a card and asked for a hug.
There are other, more significant benefits. Many of the students have parents who didn't go to college, and last year, some of the girls at Nicollet were pretty vocal on that front, said mentor Renae Pereira: They believed that higher education was not an option for them. Then they took a winter field trip to the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. After the visit, Pereira asked the students what they'd gotten out of the trip. Two of them turned to her and said, in tones of new certainty, "I can go to college."
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016