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Creating a Culture of Mentoring in Windsor Co.

Kathy Kinter is executive director of Windsor County Partners, a nonprofit that matches adult mentors with Windsor County children. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Kathy Kinter is executive director of Windsor County Partners, a nonprofit that matches adult mentors with Windsor County children. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

Windsor — As someone who relocated to Vermont by way of Pennsylvania, Kathy Kinter has a familiar tale to tell. When she and husband Larry Thompson first came to the area 17 years ago, neither of them had jobs and their friends thought they had lost their minds. To cement that impression securely in place, they promptly bought an old farmhouse that needed “tons of work.”

They couldn’t help themselves, Kinter said. “We fell in love with (Vermont). I loved the values, the politics, the natural beauty.”

Kinter’s story also rings a familiar bell in the way she has pieced together a livelihood since she took up residence in the Green Mountain State. With a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s in environmental education, the 54-year-old Kinter’s various interests have led her to do everything from working with abused and neglected children to running her own floral business to working as an adjunct professor.

For the last five years, however, Kinter, who lives in West Brookfield, has settled for a while into her job as program coordinator and executive director of Windsor County Partners. There, she oversees two mentoring programs: PALS (Partners Always Lend a Hand), which matches adult mentors with children in the community, and a school program that brings adults and children together at Elm Hill Primary School in Springfield, Vt.

Kinter recently spoke to the Valley News about her work with Windsor County Partners. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Valley News: Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of Windsor County Partners?

Kathy Kinter: We are a youth mentoring nonprofit that has been in existence for 38 years. We were founded (by people) who decided there needed to be a way to keep kids out of the criminal justice system and, once they were in it, they also needed to provide support for these kids. That was the vision for Windsor County Partners, (but) as the years went on, it evolved into a broader view, looking at serving kids more as a prevention than an intervention. Today, that is pretty much our stance. While we do see mentoring as an intervention, we like to match kids at a younger age so that it can be (more) preventative. We’re there for kids at risk, that’s the main population (we serve), but I like to think that all kids need a mentor and that all kids are kids of promise. What we are about is creating opportunity through mentoring for children regardless of their label. Our mission is for kids to realize their potential as healthy, responsible decision makers.

VN: Given that you can’t provide mentors for all children, which children are you actually able to work with?

KK: Most of our kids are referred by school guidance counselors. We also have parents who refer their own children. HCRS, community mental health, does a lot of referring. Our kids come primarily from the Hartford, Windsor and Springfield areas. Kids are referred for any number of reasons. Sometimes, it’s because it’s a single parent family. Sometimes the demands of work (in a two-parent family) are such that parents feel they just can’t give their child the attention he or she needs. Sometimes there’s a sibling with a chronic illness in the family, again, drawing the parent away from the needs of the other kids. Sometimes there are drug and alcohol issues. Sometimes a parent is incarcerated. Sometimes kids are living and being raised with a grandparent, so again, the grandparent feels she needs support. The kids are many times struggling academically. Sometimes school attendance is an issue. Often there are problems with social skills, so we see kids who have trouble making and keeping friends. It’s really a range of things. But across the board, for a lot of these kids, it’s lacking confidence.

VN: How old are the kids you work with?

KK: The kids in our PALS program, we take them as young as 8 and they stay in the program until they graduate from high school. In the school program, we take kids as young as 5. So it starts in elementary school and we have mentors in the middle school as well. We haven’t worked out exactly how to make mentoring happen with the logistics of the high school and the other piece of that is that kids at the age don’t want a mentor visiting them at school. We even see that at the middle school.

VN: They don’t want something that makes them feel even more self-conscious?

KK: Exactly. Isn’t it true? (laughs)

VN: What type of person seems most likely to become a mentor?

KK: I see parents who are experiencing an empty nest. Their kids have gone off to college and they love kids, they miss kids, so that can be a motivator. Older folks who have retired, who have time on their hands but also want to be engaged in something purposeful. Most of our mentors tend to be middle aged and older. We don’t have a lot of young folks who are mentors. Those folks are busy working with their own families. Everybody involved cares about kids. They want to make a difference in somebody’s life.

In terms of what we’re looking for, I always want to make sure that somebody’s motivation is correct. I want to be sure that they’re not coming with the intention of saving or fixing a child, but instead coming with the idea of service in mind, which is really a more reciprocal relationship. I look for people who are comfortable in their own skin. Somebody who’s pretty good at communicating, who can listen as well as speak. Somebody who can be child focused.

This is a bit of a paradox in that people come to this because of their own needs and desires and it’s very important that a mentor get something out of a match. At the same time, while it’s about them in terms of these relationships being successful, it has to be more about the child. They have to be child focused. That can be challenging with some of our kids who have a really hard time understanding how to fully participate in a relationship, how to give an opinion, feeling safe enough to say ‘I want to go bowling. I don’t want to go to the craft show.’ You laugh, but that’s often one of the things that happens. One of (the kids) said to me, ‘I got sick of going to art shows.’

On the one hand, we’re asking mentors to share their lives and their interests and expose these kids to things they haven’t been exposed to before. But at the same time, we ask that the mentors honor the kids’ families and culture and their values. At times, the clash comes when the middle class values of the mentor come up against the generational poverty values of some of our families. That can be very, very tricky to navigate.

VN: Can you give me an example of that?

KK: A typical scenario that I hear again and again is around health and well being. Food, eating, exercise. A number of our mentors are extremely committed to their health and well being. They work out, some of them every day, they eat well, and they then try to bring those values into the time they spend with the kids. I remember one mentor (during a mentor support group) said, ‘I finally got my junior partner to eat a carrot! She finally ate one carrot and I was so happy!’

You ask about success, well, that can be an example of success. It can be as simple as eating a carrot. In my training with the mentors, I reiterate that again and again. It is that simple. It’s eating a carrot. It’s a kid saying thank you. It’s the kid who’s smiling, engaging with you, helping you make decisions. It’s those little things that are incremental steps that are all part of the success leading to the bigger successes.

VN: Why did you say earlier that you think every child should have a mentor?

KK: I really like the notion of creating a culture of mentoring, (where the community is) able to embrace mentoring as something that is part of the fabric of the community. It builds social capital, and when it’s done well it has a significant impact on a kid’s life. The Search Institute talks about the single most important factor in terms of a kid’s ability to weather life’s storms is having a caring adult in his or her life. That is absolutely critical. Kids need a person to be there for them no matter what. It really does come down to love. It’s about us reaching out to one another and loving one another and making a commitment to that.

Diane Taylor can be reached at 603-727-3221 or dtaylor@vnews.com.