50 Years of Supporting Kids, Mentors Plus Program Has Room for More Volunteers
(Elizabeth Schanz, May 6, 2023)
Oakland County, MI -Whether you live in Hazel Park or Holly, South Lyon or Leonard, or anywhere in between, there are young people who could benefit from having a mentor to look up to and talk to. Oakland County Youth Assistance’s Mentors Plus program helps make those connections that make a difference.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Mentors Plus program and many participants in the program attest that over the course of many years, Mentors Plus has aimed to make a positive impact on individuals. Mentors Plus organizers and volunteers feel their work extends beyond the program itself and continually benefits the people in the Oakland County community long into the future.
The Mentors Plus program connects at-risk youth, who may have gotten into prior run-ins with the law, with vetted, background-checked, volunteer mentors. The Volunteer Coordinator for Mentors Plus of Oakland County Youth Assistance Julie Stitt said people who are looking to become mentors must like kids and be patient. She said mentors are key players in giving kids new experiences that they may not have had otherwise and provide tailored one-on-one support.
To create mentee-mentor pairings the Mentors Plus program makes sure the volunteer is within 20 minutes of the mentee’s house, have similar interests to the mentee and have similar goals for the mentorship program. The process includes a “match meeting” in which the potential mentor and mentee can connect by themselves and to see if the pairing will be a good fit.
Long-term volunteers like John Dorr have gone through the matching process multiple times. Dorr has been a mentor with Mentors Plus for 15 years and has had six mentees.
Dorr initially learned about Mentors Plus after he had seen a flyer from the program advertising for people to become mentors. Dorr, a retired teacher and avid participant in community service throughout the course of his life, was eager to make an impact on the lives of young people in the community.
Dorr said he puts considerable time and effort into his relationships with mentees past and present in order to create a long-term support system and commitment to growth.
The program requires mentors to engage with their designated mentee for at least one hour a week over the course of the year. Dorr attests the connections made through Mentors Plus often go beyond the set requirements the program lays out.
“What’s supposed to be a one-year commitment is rarely a one-year commitment. I would say it’s closer to a three to five-year commitment and connection,” Dorr said. “One of the most rewarding things is when you stay in touch with those mentees.”
Dorr said his first mentee who he met when they were about five or six years old is now in college. He said this first mentee reaches out to him and they are still in communication now. He says another one of his former Mentors Plus mentees was in the service and is now coming back to Michigan. Dorr said they try to get together once a year and hope to see each other more often now that he is back in the state.
Dorr is still active in the Mentor Plus program and currently has a mentee named Ron Smith. Dorr and Smith have many shared interests like working out, history and going on many outings together. Dorr says they grow with each meeting.
Stitt said these types of relationships are not isolated to one mentor pairing but span across the relationships made across the many connections in the program that have a long-term impact that changes the course of kids’ lives.
“In Mentors Plus we have all kinds of people who go from not very good circumstances or not having much self-confidence or social skills into just thriving. We just see that a lot,” Stitt said.
Dorr said the work Mentors Plus does is a testament to what engaging with young people and teaching them can do to cultivate curiosity, good communication and respect. He says as a mentor he is not only a teacher but a learner and is continually growing alongside his mentees.
“It’s one of those programs where you’re giving but you’re getting a lot more out of it. You grow with each individual mentee you have,” Dorr said. “You grow a lot, you learn a lot, you learn to ask more questions.”
The Mentors Plus program is flexible as to what mentors and mentees want to do. The program provides many resources to help foster these connections. Mentors Plus gives experiential learning experiences activities and outings for the mentor-mentee pairings. Stitt said mentors get a “welcome package” that contains almost a hundred games, markers and coloring utensils. Additionally, they offer free tickets to many experiences in the community including trips to museums like the Henry Ford and Greenfield Village located in Dearborn, Michigan, sporting events and plays.
These service opportunities are what Stitt says sets Mentors Plus apart in the kind and amount of engagement the program offers and encourages extensive participation.
“Each year our volunteers offer more than 5,000 direct service hours to youth in our communities. It is just an incredible amount of direct service hours,” Stitt said.
Mentors Plus works directly within the framework of the wider goals of Oakland County Youth Assistance that aims to support the fundamental needs and wellbeing of Oakland County youth. The Mentors Plus program requires a once-a-month report from the mentors and mentees. This report allows participants to advocate for needs, like food or clothing, or connect mentees to counseling services by engaging local case workers and addressing issues if they arise.
Stitt said along with the mental and relational support Mentors Plus provides there are also monetary benefits for the greater Oakland County community. By engaging at-risk youth in positive outlets and activities, the program can help prevent children from ending up in disciplinary facilities that are not only serious for the kid but expensive to maintain.
“Prevention, in general, is so much less expensive than intervention. In other words, we’d rather not wait until the kids are in trouble to try and do something with them. If we can teach them good social skills and give them good support now, it just works better.”
Learn more at https://www.oakgov.com/government/courts/youth-assistance/mentors-plus