After 15 years fostering the remarkable growth of Guilford Youth Mentoring (GYM), Barbara Solomon is saying goodbye the GYM way—”from the heart.”
Barbara has been with GYM since its inception and has now officially retired from her post as GYM founder and executive director. GYM provided an unexpected second career for Barbara. In 1997, she had just completed 20 years as a Guilford High School (GHS) school psychologist and taken early retirement. Instead of going into private practice as planned, Barbara took up an invitation to join an advisory board of school and local leaders working on the idea of matching adult community mentors with Guilford Public School (GPS) student “mentees.”
By the time non-profit GYM was ready to launch its first year with GPS, Barbara was signed on as executive director; reporting to the newly formed GYM Board of Directors. Through the years, a small part-time GYM staff has joined Barbara to help keep up with GYM’s exponential growth.
From the start, GYM took off in this town, at a time when many in the state were attempting to start up similar programs without similar success.
“The idea for mentoring came from two different directions,” Barbara says. “One was the schools’ special services team’s experience in bringing people into kids’ lives and finding it could really help make school meaningful for them, and secondly there was growing support from what is now known as the Governor’s Prevention Partnership program.”
With support from GPS and a big assist from a small team of willing adult volunteers, mainly arriving from community-minded Guilford Savings Bank, GYM took off with a great start from year one—matching about a dozen mentors with GHS mentees.
“Guilford offered the perfect combination for us to succeed,” says Barbara. “The timing was good, because you had a bank with a mission, and you had publicity in the newspapers, and people on the state level were saying school-based mentoring is a natural way to bring community volunteers into the school in a formal, safe way with best practices.”
GYM’s growth continued annually with more individuals, organizations, and small businesses feeding in mentors. Each underwent training and dedicated themselves to at least one hour a week with his or her mentee in a school setting, for an entire school year. The program grew to include students from every GPS school and is today considered a model in the state, Barbara says.
“Guilford is one of the few public school systems that has a mentoring program from K through 12,” says Barbara. “That’s a credit to GYM, but it’s also a credit to the businesses, the schools, the administration and the superintendent. They all see the value in providing opportunities for kids who would really profit from an hour a week with an adult.”
While GSB remains committed to the mentoring program, as do so many other local businesses and organizations, Guilford Rotary has embraced GYM as one of it’s Service Above Self programs and that’s helped to cross-pollinate GYM mentors from around the town’s business community. Currently about 15 mentors hail from Rotary.
“It’s really coalescing into these natural groups of adults from the community who are kind of self-selecting as volunteers committed to mentoring,” says Barbara. “As that happens, it becomes an ethos, an ethic. It’s a way for people who are very busy business people, who wouldn’t be able to volunteer with children in any other way, to get involved in a very meaningful program that their company—or if they’re self-employed, that they, themselves—will support and encourage.”
For many mentors and mentees, that commitment has branched out to last for years. Some mentors have “graduated” after four years with their high school mentee; others have followed students from grade school to middle school and middle to school to high school. Many mentors also return to undertake another meaningful relationship with a new mentee.
It’s that lasting connection, as well as each mentor’s belief in supporting the program, that makes GYM so meaningful to everyone involved, says Barbara.
“Some of our mentors have been with us 12 or 13 years,” says Barbara. “It works because you have a community with businesses that honor the mentoring program and really are positive about their employees mentoring, and a school administration that supports the program, and a really hard-working board that believes in the mission.”
If it sounds like it takes a village, Guilford Community Fund agrees. The non-profit, which gives back to Guilford by taking in donations and using them to support numerous non-profits serving Guilford residents in need, has just named GYM as the newest agency to benefit from contributions.
“We are now a Guilford Community Fund agency, which is a huge acknowledgment, to me, of what Guilford Youth Mentoring means to the community of Guilford,” says Barbara. “We were asked to speak at their [May] meeting as the newest agency, and the meeting’s theme was ‘It Takes a Village.’ The idea was that Guilford Youth Mentoring does mobilize the village of community volunteers, who have so much to give to kids.”
Barbara says GYM makes a point of supporting the importance of mentors with updates sent out from GYM offices throughout the school year and by gathering mentors for meetings, training, talk sessions, and at the GYM annual dinner. At the mentor/mentee dinner, GYM shares quotes written by many mentees about their experience, which have come to be known as “Stories from the Heart.”
“It always seems to amaze the mentors to learn that just taking an hour a week to share their knowledge, their experience, their life stories—or just to be there for their mentee and sometimes not say a word—that it says to these kids, ‘I’m important; I have value, I have options,’” says Barbara.
While this final year with GYM has been bittersweet, Barbara’s work to transition the program into the hands of GYM staffers Simona Nerney (assistant coordinator), Lisa Ott (program coordinator), and Lisa MacDougald (office manager) in the new GYM offices at GHS has also provided a “full circle” experience, she says.
“We’ve been doing a lot of data entry, so there are a lot of numbers, like having a 95 percent retention rate over five years, and mentors devoting 7,000 hours a year, with all the training—and over the past 15 years, we’ve had over 520 people who’ve made that commitment,” says Barbara. “This is full circle for me because with the recapturing of that data, I’m looking at all of the names and remembering the stories of all of the people that have devoted years of their lives to make a difference in the life of a child.”
To say goodbye, Barbara’s been writing her own “Stories from the Heart”—notes of personal thanks sent to many of the mentors, past and present.
“It’s important for me to say ‘Thank you,’” says Barbara. “It’s another sort of full circle moment, because looking back at all the quotes written by mentees through the years, I see those wonderful stories from kids who are also saying ‘Thank you.’”
To learn more about GYM or to read some “Stories from the Heart,” visit www.guilfordmentoring.org.