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September 08, 2020

Back to School During COVID-19

There is no better time in our lifetimes where mentoring matters the most.

*by Paul (Rock) Rathgeb, Friend -mentor

"What park are you at?" "Do want to read the sign to me?" "What sort of animals do you think you will see or hear?" "Do you hear the bird songs?" The youth I walk alongside, Kyler, hops from one log to the next. He stops to crouch down for a closer look to find salamanders or critters that crawl. His therapist guides his hand and reminds him to pull off to the side of the trail to social distance. As Kyler's Mentor, I grip onto my cellphone from home watching, admiring, and encouraging Kyler to explore and make inquiries about the world around him.

Prior to the pandemic, as Kyler's Mentor with Friends of the Children-Portland, we'd visit a park to ride bikes and scooters, climb on the playground equipment, or play catch. On rainy days we would paint, ride a scooter in the gym, play a board game, read a book together or bake cookies. Instead, to stay safe in pandemic time we follow the guidelines of the CDC, our state, and partnering schools working remotely from our home.

Once in person outings pre-pandemic have become virtual, our attention as mentors to supporting youth's Core Assets around building Positive Relationships, Problem Solving, Self-Management Hope, Belonging, Perseverance or Grit, Growth Mindset, Self-Determination and finding their Sparks has not changed. What we call weekly outings with the youth we serve has not changed. We're still together, no matter what - just virtually.

Part of my weekly virtual outing routine with Kyler involves book reading. With two sons of my own we have a bookshelf full of children's books. Sometimes my own children like to each pick out a book to read to Kyler. We know science and humor meet his Sparks and bring great joy to him. We read a few chapters in Frog and Toad chatting about how silly it is. My oldest son chooses a book about 1,000 Facts About Insects. I read out loud while gripping the camera phone and scan the words and pictures. Sometimes Kyler has me pause so he can zoom in on a picture that catches his eye.

For Trey, another youth on my youth roster with Friends of the Children-Portland, I have signed him up for an online private music lesson through a partnering organization. During a video chat I ask Trey to see if he is willing to share some notes or a song. Trey plucks the guitar strings with a few notes he's picked up during his virtual music classes. He looks very comfortable holding his guitar, so I assure him that he's a "natural." I ask if he wants to try to play together. Tapping on a box drum at home producing a simple beat, we have a mini jam session. We switch to virtual multiplayer parkour video game and online UNO to finish out our virtual outing.

Gardening the Future

Once a month, Mentors drop off care packages. Our Spring 2020 care package included various gardening seeds that youth and families could plant. On the phone with Uriah, we chat about food and cooking, two Sparks that he's inspired by. I talk about gardening and if he has an interest or if there is anything that he would want to plant what would it be? I remind him about the seed packets that we're dropped off in the Spring and if he would like to try planting some. My own family and I garden at our home, so I hover over our garden beds with my phone to share the vegetables we've planted.

I ask Uriah if he has potting soil and a pot or a shovel to till the soil in his yard. He doesn't know what tilling means so I describe it. He remembers that he has a dead plant in a large pot with potting soil. After removing the dead plant he mixes in new soil and replants. Uriah chooses to plant the herb rosemary because it's the seasoning he likes to add whenever he cooks a steak. He reads aloud the growing steps on the seed packet, including proper depth, lighting, and how far a part to space the seeds. We discuss watering the new seeds and when to water. Garden conversation leads to a conversation about lunch and Uriah proceeds to cut potatoes, so that he can make himself mashed potatoes.

Before the pandemic, Uriah and I would go shopping together for ingredients for a simple healthy meal and take it back to Friends of the Children-Portland site to prep, cook, and sit down together in our shared kitchen. But in pandemic times the imagination becomes stretched to see what can be accomplished 1:1 virtually. As Mentors, it pushes us to experiment with project ideas that a youth can conduct from home, being as creative as we can to promote independence and moments of success for our youth.

Back to School During COVID-19

School in Portland, Oregon is starting in September and our state has decided that school will begin with distant learning until at least the beginning of November. Before the pandemic, a critical role as a Mentor involved weekly school visits to support the student emotionally, socially, and academically in the classroom. Our attention now, since we can not physically be in schools, has shifted to finding creative ways to incorporate school success from home. We have lots of conversations over the phone or video chat about school goals, do school work, read books, cooking meals, talk of healthy nutrition, research when we don't know, game, share in DIY videos , shows, or movies, fill out Mad Libs, draw or color, and do whatever positively engages the youth we serve during this rough time.

Like millions of families globally being impacted by the socio-economical toll of COVID-19 there is no stronger need for mentoring. Families, and especially youth, have been devastated by the effects of the pandemic with over a billion youth out of school. Youth and families struggle due to unemployment, job insecurity, unstable housing food scarcity, anxieties around the pandemic, and the list goes on. There is no better time to seek out family, friends, neighbors, organizations, to find refuge, strength and support during a global crisis. There is no better time in history for all of us to step up and be the best mentor or advocate for youth. There is no better time in our lifetimes where mentoring matters the most.

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