When Dennis Conrad and Andy Quiroz hang out, they’ll go to the beach or walk dogs from the animal shelter. They talk about their days, about the Seahawks and watch island foxes skitter by. They’re good friends, and have hung out often for about two years.
The two didn’t meet in Andy’s fourth grade class, in fact Conrad is 69 years old and Andy is 10. The two met through the 4H Washington State University Extension Mentor Program, partnered with the San Juan Island Family Resource Center, a program that links school-aged children with mentors in the community.
Susana Quiroz, Andy’s mother, said that before the mentor program, due to speech delays and being a middle child in a large family, he was somewhat reticent and shy. Since being in the program, Quiroz said that he’s become involved in football, soccer and basketball, had new experiences like an overnight camping trip and has become more social.
“For Andy it has helped him tremendously, from the social development to gaining confidence, and since he doesn’t have his dad with him really having a positive male figure in his life,” Quiroz said. “Overall, the help of Dennis has changed this wonderful shy kid into an awesome confident kid who now looks forward to challenges.”
A myriad of issues stack up against parents who are trying to make it by in the San Juan Islands, including a small stock of affordable housing, high rental prices and the financial difficulties that come with seasonal jobs and, sometimes, seasonal unemployment. Despite the islands being an outdoor vacation destination for many people, some parents have difficulties finding time to spend time with their children outside of home.
“What I see is a lot of these parents on their own; they aren’t all single parents, but they’re working parents,” said Barbara Ellis, program coordinator of the 4H Mentor Program. “They’re working hard to get by and make it here. It’s a difficult community to make a living in, especially for families. When 90 percent of your effort is just to get by, recreation is kind of off your radar.”
Ellis, who raised her own children on the islands, said that it was an eye-opener when she realized that not all local kids were regularly able to explore the islands and community because their parents might be too busy juggling work and home life.
“The mentors can expose the kids to so much in our community that the kids might not otherwise get a chance to see,” Ellis said. “The national park trail systems, the museum, things that maybe their parents might not be inclined to take them. Its sort of opening their world to their own community.”
The free 4H mentor program, which started one year ago, partners with the San Juan Island Family Resource Center’s mentor program for funding, referrals and resources. As of now, the partnered program has 26 mentors, and a number of children on a wait list for mentors. Adults who sign up commit to meeting up with their mentee one hour a week for one year.
After a thorough screening process, mentors are matched up with local kids depending on their interests. Mentors take their mentees fishing, horseback riding, on hikes, to the museums, or to different events on the islands.
Conrad, who Andy describes as “nice” and “cool,” is a retired pastor. Two of Andy’s siblings are also mentored in the program.
“It means having a good friend to hang out with, and I look forward to spending time with Andy, and watching how he has grown and matured,” Conrad said. “It’s a good experience.”
Andy, a fourth grader, says he has fun going to South Beach with Conrad, volunteering at the animal shelter and talking about football.
“He plays with me and I don’t really like to be alone, and he’s great at teaching me how to read,” Andy said.
Although the mentor program doesn’t focus on academics, pairs focus and plan activities based on what the mentored children like to do, or what they want to get better at. Since one of Andy’s favorite subjects at school is reading, they sometimes work on that by writing or reading together at the library.
“He’s been doing this for two years,” Conrad said. “Andy has really gotten better at reading and writing. Mentoring isn’t tutoring, but we like to work on stuff together.”
A 2014 study by Mentor: The National Mentoring Partnership found that children who were at risk of not completing high school but who had mentors were 81 percent more likely to participate regularly in sports and extracurricular activities, more than twice as likely to hold a leadership position in club or sports teams, and 78 percent more likely to volunteer regularly in their communities.
Linnea Anderson, probation counselor for San Juan County, said that these sort of results might not be immediately obvious when a child gets a mentor.
“We’re kind of like gardeners, we plant a bunch of seeds but we can’t control the weather,” said Anderson, who has worked for the state as a mentor. “We may never know if they bloom or not. I feel like that can be frustrating for some people because they put in so much work but they never see the corn harvest.”
An important thing to keep in mind from the perspective of the mentor is to never underestimate the power that a caring and non judgemental relationship can have on a person’s life. Anderson said that she talked once with a boy who had just graduated high school, and had a mentor from second to seventh grade. He told Anderson that he would not have been able to make it through those years without his mentor.
“Humans crave connection and a lot of times teachers and parents have a sort of agenda, teachers want them to do their homework, parents want their children to do well, and mentors just allow them to just ‘be,’” Anderson said.
At the basis of mentorship is friendship, and being a dependable person in a child’s life. Katie Loring, a local attorney, is also in the program and mentors fourth grader Ashlynn Wilson.
“It means being a friend and being someone Ashlynn can count on,” Loring said. “It keeps me grounded, and we do lots of fun activities that I might not do otherwise.”
Ashlynn, a ten-year-old of seemingly boundless energy, rides horses with Loring, goes to San Juan Community Theatre productions and plays board games during their two hour, once-a-week time together. When Ashlynn acted as a vegetarian vampire in the musical “We Are Monsters” with her mother, Loring went to see her act.
Ashlynn sees the value of a mentor the same way as one would a friend.
“Sometimes if you’re lonely or bored you can hang out with them and it makes you feel better,” Ashlynn said.
She has also gotten involved in the 4H horse clubs, which Ellis says is another way to get children engaged with their community, as 4H leaders. The mentor program also hosts Family Night Out for the mentored kids and their families, which creates a network of parents.
“This group is kind of becoming a family for them, and it’s very sweet,” Ellis said. “The parents are starting to connect, the kids are setting up play dates together and they’re really feeling a part of the community, and that’s been really great to see, its very heartwarming.”
The program was looking to expand to other islands after such a successful first year, but weren’t granted the additional funding, since so many programs are just getting started in other counties in Washington. But eventually, Ellis said, it would be great to partner with mentorship programs on Orcas Island and Lopez Island to combine resources and reach more kids.
Although the need varies, right now the program is looking for more male mentors, as they have six boys waiting to enter the program. Since the 4H program joined the existing San Juan Island Family Resource Center Mentor Program, the number of kids has doubled. In addition, they now offer translation services for parents of Hispanic families who are not bilingual.
To sign up for the program as a mentor or those interested in signing their children up for the program, contact program coordinator Barbara Ellis at 360-370-7665 or Jennifer Armstrong, director of San Juan Family Resource Center, at 360-378-5246.