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Emotional support, friends for youth found at Mentor Center

by Patt Quinn-Davis, for the Appeal

A shoe box holds papers describing the activities. One slip of paper describes a trip to Lake Tahoe. Others mention hanging out around the house. The activities are usually simple, ones experienced in families all the time.

But this shoe box of activities isn’t for a family. It is a tool of Bob Thrower, who uses it in his volunteer work as a mentor for the Mentor Center of Western Nevada.

As a mentor, Thrower has committed himself to one hour a week with a child who has registered with the program. The actual time he spends is often much more.

“I keep the shoe box of ideas of things I want to do and ones he does,” Thrower said. Then when he meets with his young charge, one of them gets a turn to pick from the box.

“There are things like going to the library, to Lake Tahoe, to dinner at my house, or socializing at his house with his family,” Thrower said.

The children involved in the mentoring program are from 7 to 16 years of age. They are children who need the emotional support available through different kinds of relationships and that is often not available in the children’s families.

Sometimes the children in the program live in homes with little parental involvement, said Ruth Gordon, director of the Mentor Center. Other times, because of single parenting and economics, there just isn’t a lot of time because the parent is working two and three jobs, she said.

And many times the mentor is the person a child can talk to who isn’t part of the court or welfare system to which the child is often accustomed.

“Many of our kids don’t have extended family living here,” Gordon said. “It is harder to talk about issues and this (the mentoring program) gives them another person to talk to who isn’t a parent.”

Ninety percent of the children live with single mothers who are at or below the poverty line, Gordon said.

In addition to federal funds, the program receives community support through the Carson City School District, Carson-Tahoe Hospital, Western Nevada Community College and from Carson City. Gordon said studies show mentoring has lowered first use of drugs and alcohol, prompted a decrease in truancy and brings more positive results in school. The volunteer mentors must undergo background checks, three-hour training sessions and ongoing training along with agreeing to a one-year commitment.

The Mentor Center is a program of the Boys & Girls Club of Western Nevada. With its office at Western Nevada Community College, the center presently has 17 children waiting for more people to volunteer as mentors.

A father himself, Thrower has been a mentor for more than a year.

“I grew up as a person without a father,” Thrower said. “No one else should.”

For Linda Witkop, a roomful of grade school children isn’t enough. Witkop, a teacher at Empire Elementary School, has mentored the same sixth-grade boy for the past year and a half.

“He really needs someone to listen to him,” Witkop said. “I don’t have kids of my own, my nieces and nephews are back East, and it is a chance to have fun. We’re not teaching them anything per se. It’s just a chance to have a good time.”

Witkop said she believes the mentoring program helps the family in which the child lives. The mentor is another role model the family can use to help reinforce that family’s values. When a parent wants particular behavior from the child, the mentor can reemphasize those wishes in conversations and by example.

Witkop said she intentionally picks activities to help the child she mentors overcome different kinds of fears. She takes him to restaurants to help him learn social skills such as eating in public places and ordering from a menu. He is often nervous in crowds so Witkop tries to find situations that will help him overcome such nervousness. She also does lots of outdoor activities with him, including biking and hiking.

And Witkop has seen what her relationship with the boy has done.

“My child has become more outgoing,” she said.

Thrower has also seen good results from this special relationship. Thrower encouraged one of his charges to reestablish a relationship with his father who no longer lived in the home. Now the child talks regularly to his father.

“(The) dad is the man. He is the guy,” Thrower said.

The mentoring program is very fulfilling for Thrower. “Just to catch the kid smiling with that can’t-wait-for-you-to-show-up look,” Thrower said.

And for Witkop, mentoring is a chance for her to get out of her adult roles and just enjoy life.

“It’s a chance to spend time with a child and to get back to what’s really important. When life gets crazy … the paperwork can wait. I just play and have fun with him,” she said.

If interested in the Mentor Center of Western Nevada, call Ruth Gordon at 445-3346.

YOU CAN HELP

What: Be a mentor

Where: Mentor Center of Western Nevada

Call: Ruth Gordon at 445-3346