By Kim Kinzie
Living in a place like East Greenwich offers many benefits: annual concerts and Main Street strolls, sports and activities for every interest, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of community. Nowhere is that sense felt more than in the Strategic Support Mentoring Program.
The mentoring program pairs students in need of some academic and/or social support with an adult who’s willing to share their time and interests with that student. The program, now in its 20th year, began with a grant from the Mixer family. After two successful years, the School Committee added the program to their budget and, with the support of the Town Council, has been doing so since.
Director Nina Mackta has run the mentoring program since its inception. The program’s main goal is to build confidence in its participants, who tend to be those in danger of slipping through the cracks – they don’t quite qualify for services, yet they aren’t reaching their full potential. Participants are typically referred by their teachers, though it’s not uncommon for parents to refer their children, or even students to refer themselves.
Mentors, on the other hand, are volunteers from the community of all ages and backgrounds, some of whom have been involved since the program began. There is a constant need for volunteers, especially men interested in working with young boys/teens. Over the years, Mackta has partnered with various entities such as the Women’s Club, the Rotary Club and local universities and churches, to solicit volunteers. She also works with college students seeking to earn credit while gaining experience for future careers in social work or education.
The program takes place during school hours at a designated – and consistent – 30 to 45 minute block. Each week the mentor shows up for one-on-one time with the student, during which time they’ll work on a project together. Projects range from building a model bridge or creating a piece of art to playing a board game. It’s up the mentor-student team: what are they both interested in, and how will this project strengthen their time together? What they do isn’t all that important; it’s the time spent that makes the difference.
“I only hope he gets as much out of it as I do.” – Michael O’Neil, mentor
Michael O’Neil, a retired sales manager, starting volunteering as a mentor in 2016. He was assigned to Joe, a third grader at Hanaford Elementary, and has been paired with him ever since. Sometimes they go outside to kick a soccer ball; other times they play hangman. Mostly they just talk. “I think we have a great dialogue. We joke with each other and laugh a lot.” O’Neil explained when asked out their rapport. “I’ve taught him how to use a slide rule and to shake hands; he’s taught me how to play dominoes. I share my experiences and knowledge with him and hope it makes a difference.”
For those thinking of volunteering, O’Neil’s advice is to be committed, “You can’t think of it as a job. It’s something you have to want to do, to be enthusiastic about your time together.” Not having kids or grandkids of his own, O’Neil truly values his time with Joe. “I only hope he gets as much out of it as I do.”
Mackta has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of students go through the program and can attest to its success, as most tend to improve both socially and academically. “I just want her by my side,” and “She makes feel better about myself” are some of the accolades Mackta has received from students. The mentors receive the personal satisfaction of both giving back to their community and knowing they’ve helped “pull the best” out of a kid in need. As for Mackta herself: “Seeing [the students’] faces brighten up when their mentors arrive” has been one of her most gratifying experiences.
Mackta expressed appreciation for all program participants and volunteers. She feels particularly grateful for the continued backing she receives from the School Committee and Town Council, as it “sends a message that they get it; that certain kids need, and deserve, extra support.” For more information about the Strategic Support Mentoring Program or to volunteer, please visit https://www.egsd.net/parents/strategic-support-mentoring-program or contact Nina Mackta at 401-398-1634.