In the fall of 2018, the superintendent of the local school system contacted Fruitport (Mich.) Christian Reformed Church. Would they be interested in a partnership to support struggling students? The church was eager to get on board. Now, a few months into a mentorship program called Partnering with Fruitport Community Schools, students are already showing improvements.
“Their K-1 classes were realizing a large number of disruptive behavioral issues,” said pastor John Huyser. Truancy was another concern.
Marissa Brandenburg, the school social worker overseeing the program, has noticed positive changes since its implementation. “Children who have mentors,” she said, “are more excited to come to school, receive academic support and encouragement, show improved social skills, and display an increase in self-confidence.”
Fruitport CRC volunteers were recruited in October. The school superintendent spoke about the program at a worship service, requesting mentors, and eight members volunteered. Three other area churches are also providing volunteers, for a total of more than 80 mentors.
The school provided training for volunteers in ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences), resilience, and mandated reporting. “It was wonderful,” Theresa Tiff, member of Fruitport CRC, said of the training. “It was mainly about things that I had been through. It was about depression and children that have hard times and families that have only one parent, or just difficulties that they have, and that they needed hope.”
Following training and a background check, Brandenburg pairs each volunteer with a student whose parent or guardian has opted into the program. Student and mentor meet at the school for individual attention once a week for an hour. The program is open to students from kindergarten to grade 12, but the current focus is on elementary students, with two schools participating.
During their time together, the pairs are free to do a variety of activities outside the classroom—play games, read books, go to the playground, or do schoolwork. Meanwhile, the mentors and mentees build strong bonds, and the children often share what is going on in their lives. Mentors complete a report form at the end of each session.
Julie Huyser, married to John, is a volunteer with the program. “It’s very rewarding—the look on her face when I show up in the classroom,” she said, of the 7-year-old she mentors. “I think I’m getting just as much out of it as she is.”
Pastor Huyser said he hopes opportunities will build from this one program. A May picnic is in the works for mentors, students, and families of students. “It is our prayer that as God continues to open doors for us to minister and serve, relations will develop not only with the students and teachers but also with the parents,” Huyser said.