Buddy-up program provides safe environment for Northfield youth

Derek Radtke_Buddy Up 1 (color)Every Friday 40 students from Northfield, Roxbury, and other surrounding areas ranging from fourth to seventh grade come to the Norwich campus to meet 38 Norwich student mentors who do everything from playing games to helping with homework.

“We teach them life skills, play games with them, and assist them with homework,” said Airk Doehlman, 20, a junior mechanical engineering major from Kentucky and Vice President of the Buddy Up program, who has been involved for three years with the program.

The program is defined on the Norwich website as a youth mentoring program that helps Norwich connect with the surrounding communities by meeting once a week with “local, at risk kids.”

The Buddy Up program has been around since 2005 when a Norwich student was informed that there was a need for mentors because local parents were calling to see if such a program existed, according to Nicole DiDomenico, the director for the Center of Civic Engagement at NU.

Jerry Cassels, the director of guidance at Northfield High School said the program “provides a really nice support for many of our students.”

“A lot of our students face a lot of challenges in life, so we feel like they are getting the support of healthy role models and the combination of academic support and mentoring,” Cassels said. “We have a high population of students who are first generation college students and also we have a lot of students who are a part of the free or reduced lunch program.”

“The biggest benefit I think we’ve seen from the program is that kids talk about the relationship they have with the college kids,” Cassels said. “They feel like they have someone they can talk to, supports them, and helps them.”

“It is a nice healthy place to be every week,” according to Cassels.

Doehlman said he has seen the program help many local youth. He cites Terrence Hebert, an 11-and-a-half year-old sixth grader from Northfield, who’s been a mentee for three years. “He’s our biggest success story of the entire program,” he said.

When Hebert first started attending the program “he was one of the biggest bullies in school” and getting in trouble for various things, according to Doehlman. “Because of this program we went ahead and changed him into what we feel is a better person.”

He is now more social with his peers, more understanding of people and more involved in activities, Doehlman said.

Hebert said he plays many sports and appreciates when the mentors come to his games.

The mentors are very involved with the program by taking “their time out a day during the week to help the kids and show them new stuff,” Hebert said, “and it’s a good thing for any kid just to come up and sign up.”

To set up for every Friday, the mentors have a weekly meeting on Mondays to discuss what the groups are going to do every week, Doehlman said.

The mentors started a new component of the program where each mentee is assigned to a mentor and at the end of every day there is one- on-one time for each pair to catch up with each other, Doehlman said.

Jamieson Preston, 7, of Northfield is “the only one second grader we allow in the program,” Doehlman said. His older brother, Jefferson, 11, a sixth grader, is in the program and his parents work at Sodexo for Norwich, so the mentors made a decision to let Jamieson into the program.

“He saw how much fun we had last year, (but) he couldn’t be in the program,” Doehlman said. “He was so excited to come (and) he looks forward to coming here every day.”

Jamieson likes his mentor and talks about his day with him. Playing games outside, like ultimate frisbee is Jamieson’s favorite game and he likes the program because “we do lots of fun stuff.”

In order to get into the program as a mentor, a student must pass a background check and an interview process, he said. “We ask them various questions about their volunteering experience, experience with children, how they would handle certain situations, and stuff like that.”

The questions are based off of the current mentors’ experiences from the past and “use guideline questions” for the interview process.

Jasmine Estrada, 19, a freshman biology major from San Antonio, Texas had to go through the application process this year. The first step was the initial application that asks questions describing yourself, your past experiences with children, your references, as well as other things.

“It’s almost like signing up for a job,” Estrada said. “We go through an application and then we set up a day to get interviewed.”

Other mentors, such as Cathy Ionescu, 19, a sophomore nursing major from Michigan, did not have to go through the process this year because they were in the program last year, The background check is used mainly to see if there are any situations that arose with the mentor involving children. An applicant can possibly be terminated from the program if something appears that could affect their work with the students, Doehlman said.

The mentors are given a three- strike rule for participating in the program.

A mentor may be dismissed from the program if they start lacking in their academics, start exhibiting behavior both in and outside of the program that the mentors do not want to instill in the children, or if a mentor misses a Buddy Up meeting with no warning, Doehlman said.

The mentees also have to follow rules and face the three-strike rule when the act out “We warn the child of their behavior” and if the mentee doesn’t listen then the mentors separate from the group into a time-out space where the mentee needs to think over their actions, Doehlman said.

“If the problem keeps occurring we give them a strike and strikes carry on for the entire academic year,” said Doehlman. “With the first strike we sit them down for a longer period of time and we reserve the right to call their parents to notify them of their behavior.”

“The second strike we call their parents up immediately and we have their parents pick them up for the day… and we also get a meeting with the guidance councilor and the parents,” said Doehlman. The meeting is set up so the school and parents can be informed of the mentees behavior and how it can be changed.

The final strike is given for continuous misbehavior. A meeting is set up for the parents, the guidance councilor, the mentee, and both the vice president and the president of the program to discuss the multiple misbehavior of the mentee, where they can possibly be removed from the program for good, Doehlman said.

“We don’t want to do that,” he said, “obviously we want the kids to be here and have fun, but we do it to enforce good behavior.”

The Buddy Up program has yet to enforce a third strike on anyone in the program, sad Doehlman. “That will not be a day I ever like.”

At the beginning of the year, the mentees come up with the rules for the program that everyone has to follow. Afterwards, a letter is written up explaining the rules, policies such as the dress code, and the program so that both the mentees and the parents understand what to do as well as what not to do, Doehlman said.

The program is open to anyone who wants to participate, Cassels said.

“We announce it to the whole school for whoever wants to do it (and) we do reach out to kids who we think might be beneficial.

Kendra and Tamieka Austin, 13, twin eighth graders from Barre City, Vt. started off in the program while living in Northfield and moved to Barre. They were sent a letter from their former teachers informing them that they could still participate.

The twins are a part of another new aspect of the program where students who are involved in the program and who are in eighth grade or above can be “mentors in training,” Doehlman said.

The girls try to invite their friends from Barre to the program, but because of lack of transportation their friends cannot come, unlike the kids from Northfield who are within walking distance.

“I think we have a good chance of expansion, we just need more mentors to keep up with it. If we could get more people involved that would be fantastic,” said Katy Rutkowski, 20, a junior psychology major from Vermont and a mentor.

The Buddy Up program is partially funded by NU for some of the activities the program does, such as arts and crafts supplies. NU also has given the program a discount on meals in the dining hall for the kids in the program, but Buddy Up pays for all the expenses so the kids do not have to, said DiDomenico.

The program has a newsletter that goes out each week to the parents to inform them of what is going on that week, special instructions if needed, and anything else there is to know so that there is communication between the mentors and the parents, according to DiDomenico.

“Honestly, I think this program is awesome,” said Rutkowski, “I mean it is one of the best things this school could do just because we work with the schools, we’re involved with the community through the schools and through these kids, (and) it’s a lot of fun.”

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