Friday, January 8, 2010

Mentoring Families Wanted

Here's a story I wrote for today's Press about a program that BCO is hoping to expand:



BRISTOL – The Bristol Community Organization is looking for about 15 local families to volunteer to mentor other families who are struggling to get out of poverty.

The Neighbor to Neighbor program pairs families who are clients of BCO with families from the community, said Thomas Morrow, director of BCO.

“The goal is to mentor them so they can move out of poverty,” said Fay Tolassi, the program coordinator. “That is the ultimate goal.”

The way it happens, she said, is by the community family sharing their experiences with life milestones like going to college, returning to school, or buying a home.

“It’s up to the BCO family to come up with what they’d like to achieve,” said Tolassi. “The idea is to form a mentoring partnership so people can move ahead in life.”

A mini version of the program started about a year ago and now the agency is trying to expand it to add about 15 new community families and 15 BCO families.

“It has worked fairly well,” said Morrow.

Morrow said the BCO families generally come through the Head Start preschool program. He said there are 74 Head Start families, so finding 15 to participate shouldn’t be difficult.

Recruiting families from the community to mentor them “is a big part of the program,” said Morrow.

The program carries a one-year commitment, said Tolassi. Families willing to fill the role of mentor have to produce a couple letters of reference from a pastor or other non-family member, she said, and go through a police background check and an interview at BCO to help determine whether they’re a good fit for the program.

After that, Tolassi said, she tries to match them with a BCO family.

Besides the local faith community, Tolassi is searching for families through businesses, individuals and Parent Teacher Organizations.

Neighbor to Neighbor started about a year ago as a pilot program funded through a grant from the McPhee Foundation.

The families are supposed to have weekly contact, which can be an email or a phone call, and to get together for an activity at least once a month. On a quarterly basis, all the families get together, share a meal and discuss their progress, Morrow said.

Morrow said the idea behind the program is that everyone needs a cheerleader, a supporter, an advocate. The community family takes on that role for the BCO family, said Morrow.

Many times what’s lacking in a low income person’s life, Morrow said, is what many successful people have – someone who believes in them.

The initial grant paid for computers for the two Head Start families, Morrow said, and for internet access for all the families for a year so they could keep in touch through email.

The idea was that the community family could teach the Head Start family how to use the computer, said Morrow. Neither Head Start family had a home computer when they entered the program, he said.

“That is one of the ways they have communicated,” said Morrow.

It also provided the matched family pairs with $100 each month to cover the costs of their shared activity and money to pay for a dinner for all the families to share during their quarterly meeting, Morrow said.

The new funding, $68,000 in federal stimulus money for 18 months, won’t have the $100 stipend or cash for computers or online access, said Morrow. It pays for Tolassi’s salary, he said, and a little food for the family dinners.

“We’re going to have to get a little more creative,” said Morrow.

After learning from the pilot program, Morrow said, they may try to have more group activities early on after the 30 families are matched, so people can get to know each other more quickly.

He said there may be also more direct work on the goals set by the BCO family.

Morrow said BCO would gladly accept donations of working computers to give to the new families in the program, as long as the hard drive was cleared.

When the funding period is over, Morrow said, he hopes the program can sustain itself.

Anyone interested in participating in the Neighbor to Neighbor program should contact Tolassi at BCO at 860-584-2725.

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