You don’t have to go far in the Ohio Valley to find good people willing to help others.
Good things are happening at the St. Clair Lanes in St. Clairsville on Sunday, and you’re invited. The fun afternoon will include free bowling, DeFelice pizza and a chance to make a difference in someone’s life.
From 1-4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2, at the St. Clair Lanes, Youth Services System Inc. will host a free bowling party for anyone interested in becoming a mentor to a child in need. The event is also open to any child, ages 5-17, who thinks they might want the benefit of having a mentor.
“Any adult who is interested in learning about us or who has ever thought about becoming a mentor is welcome to stop in, get to know us, ask questions and eat some pizza,” said Jane Ketcham, Community Relations coordinator for the Youth Mentoring Network — a service of the Youth Services System (YSS) of Wheeling.
Jane stepped into her role at the Youth Mentoring Network from a background of providing services to people with disabilities. Now she spends time in development for YSS, public speaking and circulating information about the mentoring program in schools and churches.
About three years ago, the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America chapter in Wheeling closed because of insufficient funding, leaving more than 20 mentors and mentees who were a part of that program with no sponsor. That’s when the Youth Services System stepped in, with very minimal funding, to continue the concept of mentoring children, renaming the program the Youth Mentoring Network. One of the main ideas of the program is to prevent youth from engaging in negative behavior and to provide them support and guidance as they navigate through difficult times in their lives.
Wheeling is not the only place in West Virginia that has lost their Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Just recently, the Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Central West Virginia, which served Kanawha, Jackson and Putnam counties, also closed because they were unable to meet the funding requirements of the national organization. Wheeling is especially lucky to have an organization like YSS to pick up where Big Brothers Big Sisters left off.
Perhaps no one knows how lucky Wheeling is to have Youth Services Systems so graciously continue the tradition started by the Big Brothers Big Sisters program than former mentee and current board member for Youth Services Systems, Robert Dobkin. Robert benefited from having a mentor in his life at a young age in many ways, which is why he’s still involved today as a board member.
Robert didn’t hesitate to say, “It changed my life,” when asked how important the program was for him. He met his mentor when he was 11 years old, and continued to have a relationship with him into his 40s until his mentor passed away at an old age. Robert, who was a practicing attorney and is now a trust officer at WesBanco, says having a mentor gave him confidence and instilled in him as a teenager the value of education. His mentor’s wife was a schoolteacher, and importance was always placed on Robert’s education.
“It was invaluable, to be honest,” he says of his experience of having a mentor. As for anyone looking for advice on what makes a great mentor to a child, Robert said, “A child is looking for someone who can be there and be present, more than anything. To just have someone to express that love and respect for the child is important.” Robert urges volunteers to understand that it really doesn’t take any special skills to be a mentor. “It just takes time and attention” that a child might not have in his or her day-to-day life.”
The mentoring program focuses on pairing youth with adults who can tend to their interests and strengths individually — when that child might not have an adult in his or her life who can give them undivided attention when needed.
“A lot of children in West Virginia are living with extended families, and the time and energy just isn’t there for those relatives to spend individual time with these kids,” Ketcham explained.
The program is operated similarly to how Big Brothers Big Sisters was run, with some financial help from donations, fundraisers and the United Way. The program has also received a grant from MANY, a sub-contractor of the Department of Justice, that challenges them to expand, identifying and serving more youth. This grant money is contingent upon the program’s success. Ketcham says that the program is now growing at a fast rate, and has recently been awarded a grant to recruit mentors for Tyler and Wetzel counties, locations that have been previously underserved by these types of programs and could really benefit from having people on the ground.
If you are interested in becoming a mentor but concerned about how successful you will be, don’t worry. The Youth Mentoring Network takes great pride in carefully and selectively pairing adults with children. There is pre-service training for any interested mentor at which time the program staff members assess the mentor’s interests and abilities in order to make the best match with a child who has similar interests. Children interested in physical activity, video games, movies, etc., will be paired with an adult who likes those things as well.
Jane explained how she happened to help pair a little girl who loved Rollerblading with an adult. After speaking at an organization, Jane was approached by a woman who said that she didn’t think she could be a mentor, but that her daughter was considering becoming a foster parent and she thought being a mentor would be a great first step. It turns out that this woman’s daughter Rollerbladed for exercise, making her the perfect match for the child.
The program asks that anyone interested to plan to commit at least four hours a month, preferably on two different occasions, getting their mentee out of the house and devoting time with him or her. Once a month, the Youth Mentoring Network usually provides an activity for the adults and children in the program in order to get everyone together and provide an option for an activity. These activities include going to the park in the summer, museums and even volunteering at the soup kitchen.
“We try to vary the activities and make them both fun and educational.” Jane is hoping that more kids than they anticipate show up on Sunday, and they have to run out and get more pizza. “Even if you’re not sure you want to mentor, or even bowl, but are curious about the program, please stop by Sunday just to ask questions and to learn about the program.”
Why a bowling alley as the location for Sunday’s activities? Because of yet another person in the Ohio Valley who looks out for children and wants to help others.
Ketcham approached Gary Holubeck, owner of the St. Clair Lanes, to inquire about renting the bowling alley for the event. Gary thought it was a great idea and donated his bowling alley for the cause and said he’d even see if DeFelice would like to donate pizza. Gary used to run the Big Brothers Big Sisters bowling tournaments at his business in years past.
“My dad started this business in 1961, and it was always for the kids,” Gary explained. “Bowling is a lifetime sport. You can enjoy it when you’re 8, 80 or 98. It’s good for the kids to get them off the cell phones and get them a little bit of physical activity.”
Gary says his father always believed that you have to lay the groundwork for the future by starting with the kids, which is a great way to think about the Youth Mentoring Network — a program that is laying the groundwork for the future of Wheeling and the Ohio Valley.
• Kelly Strautmann lives out in the country of Cameron, W.Va., and proofreads in the city of Wheeling. She has a supportive and talented husband and two ridiculous daughters who keep her busy and full of love.