More student demand creates volunteer shortage for the CAP mentorship program
I ran into Julie Lisk, youth program coordinator with Thrive, at the joint Gallatin and Madison county commission meeting held at Lone Peak Cinema recently. She was desperate for volunteers, she said.
We met in her office the following day. There’s a small table in the middle encroached by hundreds of games and endless art supplies. It’s apparent the sense of responsibility she takes in her work and also - as we move some children’s art projects off the table to make room for my computer - obvious that she loves her job. In other words, Lisk’s office just might be one of the happiest little offices in the world.
Right now, about 10 Big Sky kids are on a waiting list – anxiously anticipating their one-hour weekly fun sessions with an adult. Specifically, nine adult male participants are needed. The demand has increased for mentors in the Child Advancement Program which is offered by Bozeman-based nonprofit Thrive in partnership with the Big Sky School District and Yellowstone Club Community Foundation. It's not too late to apply and be matched.
The Big Sky community has been consistently stepping up to mentor youth in the CAP program, averaging 35 matches a year, with only one of those volunteers having children in the school system. Now, Julie Lisk, youth program coordinator with Thrive is setting up new matches for the school year with commitments that last through April.
“The CAP program is preventative. The kids love it. For the most part it's teacher nomination,” she said.
Lisk wants to make it clear that this program is in no way a reflection of anyone’s parenting. It’s simply an additional resource available and is beneficial for the kids because they get to build relationships outside of their families and the school. They also get to work on academic and social skills as well as enrich their lives. The kids take pride in their mentorships.
“They're so proud. Especially in the elementary school, they march their mentors into the lunch room,” Lisk said.
Mentors meet the kids on school grounds for an hour once a week. As kids and mentors are unique, their scope of projects has been vast and creative: A catapult to return basketballs; decorating a collection of homemade sugar cookies to give as Christmas gifts – a yearly mentor/mentee tradition, a crossword puzzle and word search created and dispersed to other participants in the program for Thanksgiving.
“Last year there was a whole crew of girls who made Monopoly games, except it was their names in place of 'Mon' like 'Julie-opoly,'” Lisk said.
Pamela Bussi said she had many adventures with the grade school aged boy she mentored last year.
“We did experiments – lots of experiments. He loved that. We used a lot of vinegar, because vinegar would blow up anything,” she said, pointing out that many of her ideas came from Pinterest. They also played basketball and worked on his social skills.
This year, Bussi will be matched with a girl in middle school.
Karen Strickler and Cody Hodge have been meeting every week of every school year since he was in the second grade. Hodge is now in the eighth grade.
“Cody is a really nice kid, so it’s nice to spend an hour a week with him. We generally meet during his lunch hour. We play games and talk,” said Strickler, who also volunteers at the Big Sky Community Library.
The pair talk about what’s going on in school, life in general, and skiing, one of Hodge’s favorite hobbies.
“It’s nice to see the world through a different view,” she said.
They also play games. Hodge smiled when he agreed he is the reigning Jenga champion of the mentorship. Jenga just happens to be his favorite game to play with Strickler.
“I just like having a CAP mentor. We play games a lot,” he said.
Newly matched students who are in the fifth grade or higher are paired with a mentor of the same gender. Any matches made prior to the fifth grade that are of the opposite gender continue to meet. All nominated students and their parents sign a form ensuring everyone is on board and mentors are rigorously vetted: a criminal background check; a check with the Montana State Department of Health and Human Services.
“We also check the national registry of sexual offenders and require two references,” Lisk said, also noting that Thrive covers the costs of those background checks.
Lisk, Bussi and Strickler agree that the program is beneficial for everyone involved. Many of the initial mentors and mentees have stuck with the program.
“I know that Amy Hunter with Big Brothers and Big Sisters is recruiting for mentors as well,” Lisk said. “There's a need for our community to get involved with local youth and these are two ways.”
She said the kids look forward to seeing their mentors once a week and are devastated when a mentor doesn’t show, so a “strong path of communication” has been developed. Phone calls and texts are appreciated so she can relay the messages to the children when mentors are sick or can’t make it.
“It's such a special program. It's really neat to see the kids create those relationships,” she said.
Lisk explained her passion for the work, noting the CAP mentor program is valuable enough to the school community and the Big Sky community that it remained in place despite changes in school leadership.
“I learned in life that one of the things nobody can ever take away from you is your knowledge and your education. I believe in the power of education and in our youth,” she said.