Kids 'N Kinship matches kids in need with mentors who can spare a little time to make a big impact.
Steve, age 11, “helps out at home a lot,” Kids ’N Kinship says. He washes clothes and dishes, cooks and supervises his younger siblings. He likes art, biking and anything outdoors, and he taught the neighbor boy how to ride a bike without training wheels.
Geri Goodson has been raising her son by herself for 14 years. And more than once, she's wondered about the consequences of having no consistent male role model in his life.
He had one for a while when the family lived in Oregon. He had a mentor through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, who could stop by, take him on outings, go fishing with him.
When the family moved to Minnesota four years ago, the relationship ended. The family, which also includes a 16-year-old daughter, has been on the waiting list for new mentors through the Dakota County-based Kids 'N Kinship program. But they've been waiting since last school year.
"I think it would be fantastic for him," Goodson said about finding a mentor for her son. "It would give him somebody to do something with. I don't always have time, because I work full-time."
Her son, who Kids 'N Kinship publicly calls by the pseudonym "Neil" because of privacy concerns, likes sports, swimming, hiking and video games. His profile with the organization says he's "respectful of others, outgoing and friendly, though he struggles with his temper sometimes," and that he'd love to learn to play golf and go rock climbing.
The story is common in Dakota County, where Kids 'N Kinship provides volunteer mentors for 86 kids but has about 70 more on a waiting list to be matched up with men, women and families who are willing to hang out with them once a week, get to know them, and be a positive, stable adult influence in their lives, said Jan Belmore, Kids 'N Kinship's executive director.
But because there aren't enough mentors, the average wait time for kids on the list is a year and a half.
"A lot of people are looking for male role models for their sons," Belmore said.
Having a mentor has been shown to have real results. Kids 'N Kinship tracks how many kids have problems with school absenteeism, lawbreaking or other risky behaviors while they're in the program, and the results speak for themselves. "We're in the upper 90th percentile," she said.
"It's kind of that protective factor that mentoring provides to keep kids on the right path."
A sample of kids on the list
About two-thirds of the kids on the waiting list in Dakota County are boys. Most are from single-family homes.
Kids 'N Kinship provides sample descriptions of the kids who are waiting: For instance, "Annakin," who is one of eight kids in Farmington waiting for mentors, is an active 6-year-old who'd like somebody to take him to the zoo. "Jessica" is one of 22 children in Burnsville who are on the waiting list; she loves animals, arts and volunteering, and her parents and brother have physical and emotional challenges. "Steve," who lives in Apple Valley, is an 11-year-old who helps out with household chores, likes the outdoors and wants somebody to teach him how to replace the tube in his flat bike tire.
The list goes on.
The organization has been trying to find more mentors by networking with service clubs and churches, placing notices in listings of volunteer opportunities, and hanging fliers and distributing brochures around town. But still, they don't have enough.
About 30 new mentor-child matches are made each year, Belmore said, but the number of kids who need mentors keeps growing. Often times, the children are referred to the organizations by school social workers, the county public health department or pastors -- "Anybody who's working with children and sees that they have a need," Bemore said. But it's also common for parents to seek out the service.
Mentors benefit, too
Mike Zenner of Elko New Market has been serving as a mentor for 11 years, the past six of which he's been matched with a 13-year-old boy ("He'll be 14 in February," Zenner says) who lives in Rosemount. They get together every week for about three hours. In the summer, they might go for a bike ride, throw a Frisbee around or take Zenner's dogs for a walk. In the winter, they rent a movie, hit the YMCA, or go sledding.
Zenner, 51, doesn't have children, and he said many mentors like himself volunteer because they want to have a role in a child's life.
"This is an opportunity to spend time with a child and do things that we didn't have the opportunity to do ourselves," he said.
When he started out with the two boys he's mentored, they were shy at first, but they quickly warmed up to him, Zenner said. "I can tell that when I pick him up that oftentimes it's the highlight of his week," he said of his current match.
Men, women and even couples and families who are interested in being mentors can attend an informational session to see what it's all about, then submit an application, go through a background check, and attend a training session, Belmore said.
The mentors often get just as much out of the relationship as the kids do, she said.
"It provides them a really fun, meaningful way to get involved in the community," she said.
Volunteers must commit to spending time with a child once a week and should stay with the program at least a year. "The benefits that kids get out of it really start at six months or a year," Belmore said.
And the stability of having a long-term mentor in their lives means more than just having somebody to take them to the movies or play basketball with.
"It teaches them that they can rely on adults," Belmore said.