A long-term mentorship program for students grades 7-12
“It’s not the program that changes kids. It’s the relationships. The more caring adults in a kid’s life, the better,” says Izzy Jansen, 30. That’s the big goal of the Chewonki Waypoint Program. Izzy is a coordinator for the program, which is an unusual long-term mentorship program for students grades 7–12.
Izzy works with three groups of students in grades 8, 9 and 10 in Regional School Unit 1 (Bath, Phippsburg, Arrowsic, and Georgetown). Students join the program by submitting a short application. They are then picked at random to participate, although each grade’s group is limited to 20 students. Students are encouraged to apply regardless of financial need, as there is money to support students who cannot pay for the program.
Once a part of the program, they will be together until they graduate from high school. That’s six years of mentoring by Waypoint staff and volunteers and six years to develop leadership and mentoring skills of their own, a primary goal of the program.
Each group meets every other week after school throughout the year to work on the theme for that grade level. The 7th graders start out by discussing relationship building. Each year’s theme builds a different skill until the final year, when 12th grade students learn how to be mentors for others. At each meeting, there is a core lesson as well as a team-building activity. Students often take the lead for part of the lesson, like when they do “shout-outs” to celebrate each other’s accomplishments.
Many lessons include learning outdoor skills. During COVID, more meetings than ever have been held outside. Building outdoor skills fits well with Chewonki’s strength as a Wiscasset-based non-profit educational foundation with a focus on outdoor education.
Chewonki has been around since 1915 with a variety of educational programs on site as well as outreach to schools, but the Waypoint program started just a few years ago. Waypoint is one of six programs around the state that are funded for the first six years by the Emanuel & Pauline A. Lerner Foundation, as a part of the Aspirations Incubator. The focus of all these programs is on mentoring and relationship building in Maine’s rural communities. “Waypoint, with its six-year model, gives us an opportunity to work more deeply with students in our local community than we ever have before,” says Emma Balazs, Director of Maine School Programs.
Mentorship is the heart of these programs. Students build relationships with their mentors over the years. Volunteers connect with students through simple activities like attending basketball games, theater performances, or parent teacher conferences. COVID has thrown a wrench into some of those opportunities, so instead they might have tea by a bonfire or go for a walk. Participating in the students’ lives is critical. The relationships built through the program often go beyond just the students as well and include the entire family. “Izzy has been an incredible source of encouragement to not only my daughter, but also to our family during a difficult time in our lives,” says one parent.
Throughout the program, “Students learn to think more critically about their own leadership styles and notice that there are lots of different ways to be a leader,” says Izzy. Part of the process is pushing yourself beyond what you think you can do. In a typical non-pandemic year, students would have several day-long trips as well as a culminating overnight expedition. “The overnight is outside of the comfort zone for most of the students,” says Izzy. “The first year, it’s on Chewonki Neck, which is just a mile from campus, but you feel really remote, and students get to try cooking over a campfire and sleeping in a tent.” While the students can’t do overnight trips right now during the pandemic, they are able to do plenty of shorter expeditions to build skills and confidence.
The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. As one 8th grade student put it, “Waypoint is a great community, and a great place to learn more about your community. Everyone there always makes you feel welcomed and safe. It always makes me happy, even when I’m not in the mood.” Another mother of an 8th grade student says that, “Our experience exceeded our expectations because my otherwise shy daughter looked forward to the groups each week.” The small group setting with adults that the students can trust and feel close to helps to make them comfortable enough to push themselves further.
The Chewonki Waypoint program is clearly reaching young people throughout the state and helping to develop leaders within schools and communities. “The dream,” says Izzy, “is for these students to go on to be mentors for the next generation.”