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News: 06/01/2020

SV Mentoring Alliance standing strong despite shelter in place

Mentor Maureen Laughlin with her mentee, Cathy, a 5th grader headed to Altimira Middle School.

Stay the course.

That’s the constant message from the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance (SVMA) to their adult mentors as they work to continue the important relationships they’ve fostered with 375 K-12 boys and girls.

Schools in the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, including Dunbar Elementary School in Glen Ellen, have been closed to on-site learning since mid-March due to COVID-19.

The backbone of the mentor-mentee relationship is the one-hour face to face get-together during the school week in a designated mentor center at five SVUSD elementary schools, two middle schools, and Sonoma Valley High School.

Mary Jane Arner“We don’t know when we can get back on campus or what it’s going to be like next school year,” said Mary Jane Arner, facilitator at the Dunbar Mentoring Center. Arner has been the steady SVMA hand at Dunbar for 16 years, matching Dunbar students who might have a challenging home situation and/or can benefit from an adult role model, with volunteer mentors who want to support a child.

“Mentor Centers are here for a love story to begin,” said Arner. “I’ve seen incredible relationships evolve, and I just watch it unfold, like a lotus.”

Currently there are 10 students at Dunbar in the SVMA program. Three or four more Dunbar kids were about to be matched when schools had to shut down.

When a child is first introduced to a mentor, it may take a while to warm up. “But then they begin to let their guard down and a trust factor is established,” said Arner. Mentors make a commitment to show up consistently on the same day at the same time, becoming a reliable presence.

During the hour at the Dunbar Mentor Center, there are all sorts of activities, such as board games, puzzles, science experiments, books, art supplies, and more. Sometimes the hour is spent just talking to get to know each other.

During normal times, those one-hour sessions are supplemented by activities organized by SVMA outside of school time, such as culinary classes, field trips, bingo, etc.

“These help solidify relationships,” said SVMA executive director Susie Gallo.

Now, for the most part these face-to-face focused mentoring occasions have been replaced by mentors initiating telephone calls, emails, Zoom meetings, letter writing, etc., These are methods that can have varying degrees of communicative success.

“We know this is far from perfect and there’s some frustration out there,” said Gallo. “But we tell mentors to keep trying. If there is a lack of response, they will still know you tried and that’s important.”

Some Dunbar mentors have gotten creative during this time, making extra effort to keep in touch with their mentees.

“When we first started sheltering in place, I didn’t know how this could possibly work,” said Terry Teplitz, a mentor who lives in Oakmont.

But Teplitz started a weekly Zoom meeting with her 4th grade mentee, Trinity. She plans in advance things to do for an hour so things, “don’t fizzle out.”

Irene Peterson and 4th grader AdrianaAs a birthday gift, Teplitz planned on giving Trinity a virtual trip to Hawaii, comprised of videos of snorkeling, surfing, and a helicopter ride, along with an imaginary board game.

Irene Peterson’s mentee is Adriana, another 4th grader. She has been in continual contact with Adriana, partially through frequent letter writing with a self-addressed, stamped envelope so Adriana can write back.

Peterson drops games, books and DVDs at Adriana’s home. In addition, Peterson dons a mask and gloves, picks Adriana and her brother up, puts them in the back seat, picks up school lunches, and then it’s off to Dutch Brothers for a treat.

“I want to be a steady person in her life that she can always depend on,” said Peterson.

Whatever the SVMA program, which began in 1996, looks like going forward during and after the pandemic, Dunbar mentors are in this for the long haul, emphasizing that there are many rewards for both mentor and mentee. The goal: continue a relationship all the way through high school graduation. For the past five years, SVMA mentees have had a 100 percent high school graduation rate.

Maureen Laughlin started with her mentee, Cathy, in 4th grade and now she’s in 5th, about to head off to middle school where Maureen will continue their relationship. Her husband. Tim, is also a mentor, to Angel, a 4th grader.

Maureen said at the beginning, her mentee, who has had a challenging life, wasn’t so sure about Maureen and was very reserved. But over time, a bond developed over knitting, cooking, and talking.

“I think I’m making a difference,” said Maureen. “She smiles more and that is very gratifying to me. I know she has feelings for me, as I have for her.”

Tim first became a mentor to Angel when he was in third grade, and made a point in seeing Angel last summer to take him swimming or go to the circus. He speaks proudly of Angel now being able to read at grade level after being over a year behind.

Tim encourages more people to sign up to be mentors, explaining that it’s not a big commitment and mentors have a chance to make a difference in a child’s life.

“There’s a huge need out there. A lot of these kids need someone in their lives. They become part of your family,” he said.

Potential mentors go through a screening process, and once completed, have an initial three-hour training session. SVMA continues support of its mentors in part through monthly “Let’s Talk” sessions. One-on-one coaching is available as well.

Are you interested in finding out more about how to become a mentor? Go to, email, or call 938-1990.

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