When YouthFriends began as a small pilot program of six school districts 17 years ago, there were only 140 volunteers in Kansas involved. According to its official website, YouthFriends is now “a nationally recognized and rapidly growing school-based mentoring network involving more than 70 schools districts across the states of Missouri and Kansas.”
In Emporia, this program is being utilized in public schools from pre-school to high school. It is open to all the students, but they must be referred to the program. Students have one hour each week with their mentors on school grounds.
Heather Wagner, who started YouthFriends, brought it to Emporia seven years ago.
“The children (in this program) gain self-esteem, work better with the adults and they have more friendships with other classmates,” Wagner said. “It also helps with their attendance. They will have better grades.”
Most of the group’s volunteers come from the school district, but the second largest group is Emporia State students. Currently, there are about 50 ESU students volunteering in the program.
Brooklyn Owens, junior crime and delinquency studies major, has been involved in YouthFriends since she was in high school, and she has been working for the group for a year. She said that interacting with kids has been great. Owens’ main job is to match the students and mentors, and she makes matches according to the teachers’ comments on the student.
“It’s very interesting working with kids, especially the kids from different backgrounds,” said Brianna Buyers, senior sociology major and YouthFriends volunteer. “I wish I could find more mentors to help the children.”
Buyers said her hope is to eventually find a mentor for every child.
Volunteers can choose the age groups they have interests in, and they can share common interests with the students, or do things together.
“It is great for children to have a young adult role model to look up to,” said Marcy Shirk, teacher at Timmerman Elementary School. “The YouthFriends are very good with the kids, and the kids look forward the meeting with their YouthFriends each week. I have two kids in my class who have YouthFriends, and they both have benefited greatly. Their attitudes about school and life have changed for the better.”
For more information on becoming a YouthFriends mentor for the Emporia School District, contact Heather Wagner at 341-2392, or Amanda Rodriguez at 341-2396.