April 12, 2017
At Skidmore, student engagement occurs in both the classroom and the community. Bella Bennett ’17, an environmental studies major with a minor in geology, has been involved in the Saratoga Mentoring Program for two years. She says she became a mentor because “I have had a lot of strong role models in my life and wanted to be there for someone else.”
Saratoga Mentoring Program
The 25-year-old program currently consists of about 30 mentor-and-mentee matches. Though it is operated through Catholic Charities, it is nonreligious. Brenda Jensen, the program director, explains that the purpose is for “children who live in challenging home circumstances to get matched with a positive role model who they can learn from—to have someone outside of their family unit who they can get to know and build a relationship with.” Each match has different goals depending on what the child needs, from getting him or her out of the house, to experiencing new things that their peers get to experience.
Three Skidmore mentors are involved this semester. Jensen says, “What I’ve heard from Skidmore mentors who’ve graduated is that it enriched their experience at Skidmore, because they weren’t just involved with things on campus. Their world was broadened by getting to know the community they live in and by working with the children, seeing the challenges that these face.”
At first, Bella was nervous about becoming a mentor. She jokes, “I really wanted her to like me!” The process takes care to match children with community members who are compatible with their interests and needs. After Bella was matched with her 12-year old mentee, her nerves went away. During their first meeting, Bella recalls, they “sat on her couch and chatted, and immediately I could tell she was kind of a spitfire! She is just a truly incredible person. She’s really considerate for her age in a way that I haven't really seen.”
Mentor and mentee
At the beginning of their match, Bella and her mentee spent time on campus, having lunch in the dining hall, going swimming, and playing Frisbee. Eventually they ventured more off-campus, going rock climbing at Rocksport, seeing a movie, or going out to a restaurant. The program provides mentors with activity ideas, as well as free passes to the YMCA, movie tickets, and other activities, to give mentors and mentees many options for their time together.
This winter, the program hosted a group snow-tubing event at West Mountain, which easily became one of their most memorable moments together. Bella said, “Tubing was awesome! We were giggling as we got dragged up in our tubes, but going down she was also giggling as she put her arms up in the air—so fearless! She was the one comforting me because I was terrified. When she got to the bottom, she waited for me with a huge smile on her face. It was so much fun.”
The duo also enjoys cooking and crafts in Bella’s on-campus Northwoods apartment. “We have made a lot of interesting desserts—she would find one online and email me the recipe the day before,” Bella says. “When I picked her up the other day, we didn't know what we wanted to do, so we explored the A.C. Moore crafts store ended up walking out with wooden birdhouses that we spent the afternoon painting. We go with the flow.”
Bella has noticed their relationship growing stronger over time. “As we developed a mutual bond, I have shared more of my experiences with her and she has shared more with me, which has been a relief for her, I think. Over time, we have gotten more comfortable with each other.” Their close bond is furthered by Bella’s deep appreciation for her mentee as a person. She describes her as a “very well-meaning person, very conscientious and aware. She’s really likeable and easy to get along with.”
Bella’s biggest goal is to ensure that her mentee always feels comfortable, confident, and supported. She says, “One of the most incredible things for me was that she wrote me this letter. I just can’t even begin to describe it—it is so beyond her years, I don't think I am eloquent enough to come up with something this pure. Basically it explains how I taught her that being ‘weird’ can be ‘cool,’ which is the highest form of flattery in my opinion!”
“We definitely get so much out of being with each other. I feel like she is the little sister I never had but always wanted, and I strive to be everything in a big sister that I imagine she’d want.”
When Bella graduates this May, she plans to stay in touch with her mentee to the best of her ability. “She is really important to me, so I want to know how she is feeling and what she is doing. That is one of my priorities.”
For incoming Skidmore students, Bella highly recommends becoming a mentor. Spending time with her mentee is one of the highlights of Bella’s week and “a great way to get off campus and form a bond with a child as a positive role model and friend.” While they only spend an average of three hours a week together, Bella now “cannot imagine not knowing her.”
Bella notes that it is best to join the program early and “go in with an open mind. Trust that these kids have been through a ton, and your job is to give them a reprieve from the everyday things that may be hard for them. You are setting an example for them, and whether or not they express it, they are going to model some of their behaviors after you. So you need to be responsible. And you need to put them first.”
Skidmore mentors need at least four semesters available to spend with their mentee
and a willingness to stay in touch with their mentee on the phone during school breaks
and summers. To become a mentor or learn more about the program, visit saraogamentoring.org. To learn more about community service at Skidmore, visit the Office of Community Service Programs.
—Blair Warren ’17