NHS reaching out to community to help restore mentor program

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NAUGATUCK — Naugatuck High School is seeking volunteers to revive its mentorship program.

The program matches adults with high school students to provide a positive role model and connection outside of the home.

The program lapsed last year due to staff cuts, and Naugatuck High teachers Karen Dupre and Lisa LeChance are looking to re-introduce the program.

Dupre said the program was successful when it started two years ago, and Principal Jan Saam is pushing to start the program again.

“I think she really wanted to get it back up and running and really pushed to have it grow,” Dupre said.

The program attracted about a dozen volunteers in its first year, many of whom are interested in returning this year, Dupre said. She hopes to double that number this year.

Shari Senese is one of the volunteers from two years ago who is returning this year. A graduate of Naugatuck High, Senese said she wanted to give back to her alma mater.

Last time, Senese mentored a senior girl for 45 minutes each week. She said they would just sit in the cafeteria and chat or take a walk around the track. Sometimes, Senese would help her mentee with homework.

“We didn’t really have a set agenda,” Senese said.

Senese said her mentee, who lived with her aunt, would talk about “typical teen stuff,” such as boyfriends.

“I think it gave her the opportunity to talk to someone who wasn’t going to judge her,” Senese said.

With many children growing up in single-parent households, Senese said sometimes they just need a role model to nudge them in the right direction.

“I think there’s such a need for communities now to get involved with the kids that someday are going to run this town. … It really does take the whole community to help kids get through,” Senese said.

Volunteers are trained and expected to meet with their student mentees one hour per week during lunch, so students don’t have to miss class, Dupre explained.

Dupre said the program is not a tutoring or counseling program, though volunteers may choose to help students with schoolwork. She said the primary goal is for students to have someone to show they care and are concerned about the student’s success. The program coordinators will try to match adults to students with similar interests.

“We’re not looking for someone who’s going to give gifts. It’s really a matter of having a positive adult role model,” Dupre said.

Pairs can spend their time together simply talking or playing games on campus. Students are simply looking for a consistent, stable person to discuss academic, social, and community issues, Dupre said.

“Some are students who may be going through tough times, and they just want to have someone to share time with,” Dupre said.

Another volunteer, Linda Rice, said it took a few weeks, but her freshman mentee opened up and started talking about school, jobs, and her future plans, when Rice volunteered two years ago.

“At the end of the experience she started opening up with problems she was having about sexuality and peer pressure,” Rice said.

She said teenagers now face a lot of challenges, including competing in a global economy and being exposed to blatant sexuality from an early age.

“I just feel like I was able to guide her as opposed to push somebody,” she said.

Dupre said many volunteers are parents whose kids are grown or who were mentored in high school.

“Just to know that someone cares sometimes for these kids is all they need to know,” Dupre said.

Social workers and administrators come up with list of students who might benefit from the program. Students must also get permission from their parents to participate.
“If the students have a connection to the community, they’re more likely to want to give back to the community as they become adults,” Dupre said.

She said the relationship also helps the community at large understand the high school age group and what they have to offer.

“A lot of people are afraid to work with teenagers because teenagers are another set of beings,” Dupre said.

Dupre said she hopes to get the program underway as soon as possible, with training this month and meetings with mentees starting in January.

Paige Bennett, vice president of operations at Naugatuck Savings Bank, mentored a junior two years ago and is looking forward to connecting with a new mentee.

She said it was rewarding to work with a child and fill a void where strong support systems may be missing.

I would encourage anybody who wants to help kids to participate,” Bennett said.

Volunteers must provide references and undergo fingerprint and background checks.

Anyone interested in volunteering should e-mail Dupre at duprek@naugy.net or call Naugatuck High School at (203) 720-5656 and leave a message with the secretary.