Volunteers speak on their experiences during National Mentoring Month

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 30, 2014

January is National Mentor Month, but Communities in Schools doesn’t just invest in Rowan-Salisbury students during January.
The Communities in Schools program seeks to help kids stay in school and achieve by utilizing volunteers in public school systems in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Communities in Schools of Rowan County was founded in 1998.
The organization pairs volunteers and students for mentoring and tutoring based on skills, personality type and hobbies.
Mentors meet with students exclusively at school during school hours. They listen to their students, model positive behaviors and join them for lunch once a week.
Having someone to have lunch with makes a huge difference in students’ self-esteem, said Vicky Slusser, executive director of Communities in Schools of Rowan County.
Although a tutor typically “has an educational goal in mind,” she added that many of the programs’ tutors serve as mentors as well.
Communities in Schools has handled 551 cases thus far this year. Some of the students are paired with a mentor or tutor, while others are involved in a group program or meet with a staff member. Last year, Communities in Schools worked with 227 elementary, 137 middle school and 179 high school students.
Communities in Schools found that students paired with tutors and mentors have an improved attitude toward school. Students also improve grades, attendance and behavior. Eighty-eight percent Communities in Schools students were promoted to the next grade level last year. More than 80 percent improved academically and 83 percent had improved attendance. Students also were less likely to be suspended from school.
In addition to making an impact on students’ lives, mentoring “even helps the volunteers,” Slusser said.
“To be a mentor, we do ask for a once a week commitment,” Slusser said.
Volunteers must be at least 18 years old, attend an hour-and-a-half training session, take a two-hour online course and pass a criminal background check.
Communities in Schools has one more training session for the current school year on Feb. 13 at 1 p.m., but one more might be added if the session fills up.
For more information about Communities in Schools of Rowan County, visit http://rowan.communitiesinschools.org or https://www.facebook.com/pages/Communities-In-Schools-of-Rowan-County/323269640412.
To sign up for the Feb. 13 training session, call Slusser at 704-797-0210.
Slusser began volunteering with Communities in Schools at her son’s high school in the early ’90s, while she worked on her degree in psychology at the University of Central Texas, now Baylor University.
After graduating in 1993, she worked at the Department of Social Services and was a Communities in Schools site coordinator in Killeen, Texas.
In 1998, Slusser moved to North Carolina to become the Rowan County’s first Communities in Schools executive director.
“I knew this is where my love was,” she said.
Slusser oversees site coordinators at eight public elementary, middle and high schools in the Rowan-Salisbury School System.
Sandy Silverburg has volunteered with Communities in Schools of Rowan County for two years.
The retired political science professor found out about Communities in Schools when someone suggested that he might be a good person to volunteer with the program.
Silverburg tutors two students, one at Knox Middle School and the other at North Rowan High School.
“The students I work with want to learn,” he said, adding that they need extra assistance that they don’t get at home and that overworked teachers are unable to provide.
The program is “absolutely necessary,” Silverburg said.
He added that teachers and public schools are under a lot of stress and are unable to teach students all the basic skills they need, with fewer teachers’ assistants, and a widening cultural and income gap in the community.
Silverburg said he gets “tremendous amounts of satisfaction working with students.”
Linda Thurston has volunteered with Communities in Schools on and off for the last five years.
Her church, First Presbyterian, encourages its members to volunteer at Overton Elementary School, so Thurston decided to invest her time with Communities in Schools.
“I have time to do it,” she said.
Some years, Thurston has had one student, but this year she has two — a kindergartner and a first-grader.
She helps tutor, or sometimes just socializes with her students to help them develop social skills.
This year, she said, the school has provided an separate room, extra equipment and teaching tools for Communities in Schools volunteers.
“There’s certainly a need. Part of the discouraging part is that you can’t do enough.”
She added that she’s experienced frequent changes in students because the children change schools often.
“I think it’s important for the kids and the teachers,” Thurston said.
Teachers are underpaid, overworked, overwhelmed, and don’t have the opportunity to individualize each student’s learning experience.
“I’m not an educator by any means, but I do know that kids learn differently,” she said. “Each kid’s different.”
“It does make you feel good to be helping them.”
Thurston said she thinks volunteering with Communities in Schools is “a good experience” and “it doesn’t take a lot of time.”
If a volunteer isn’t comfortable tutoring, they can still invest in a student’s lives by being a lunch buddy, she added.
Thurston retired in 2008 from her position as a registered nurse at Hospice of Rowan.
This is Rev. Dr. Barrie Kirby’s fourth year volunteering with Communities in Schools at North Rowan Elementary.
Kirby has been paired with the same little girl all four years.
“My involvement with her has evolved through the years depending on what her teacher wanted,” she said.
When Kirby first started working with her student, they would go to the library and read or work on class work together.
The girl’s family doesn’t speak English, so she had less help at home than many of the other children.
Right now, though, the girl doesn’t need to be pulled out of the classroom any longer, so they just eat lunch together.
“I know her reading and writing skills have improved,” Kirby said.
“It’s fun to watch her grow and change,” she added.
Kirby has been the pastor at Spencer Presbyterian Church for four years.
She said that the church is very committed to the public schools, especially the ones in Spencer.
“It is an important part of the heritage of Presbyterian Christians to work for the transformation of society. We are to demonstrate in the world what the kingdom of heaven is like,” she said.
This means meeting physical, emotional and spiritual needs, Kirby said.
Kirby said she would encourage potential volunteers to get involved with Communities in Schools.
She said that many of these children don’t see consistency modeled at home and that the most important thing mentors provide is a “constant relationship.”