It was good, old-fashioned summertime fun at White Pines Lake on Aug. 11 as kids and adults alike enjoyed a day of kayaking, paddleboarding and barbecue, hosted by the Calaveras Youth Mentoring Program.
Over 16 years, the program has matched roughly 200 youth mentees and adult mentors, forging profound and enduring friendships. Those friendships have carried many Calaveras kids through incredible challenges, from the instability of foster care to unplanned pregnancies and early emancipation.
Kathryn Eustis, founder and director of the Calaveras Youth Mentoring Program and director of Student Support Services for the Calaveras County Office of Education (CCOE), says mentors have “dealt with everything” over the years, and that it can often be difficult allowing mentees to make their own decisions.
“The intention is that we’re standing beside the kids on the path that they’re on,” Eustis said. “Once you get into a relationship with a kid and you really care, as an adult, you want what’s best for them and see their potential. You can see the whole world that they can’t see, and it’s not your job to make them go there. That’s the biggest difference between what I think we do and what a lot of other adults’ roles are in a kid’s life.”
Among those involved in the program, a common thread described as to what makes the mentor/mentee relationship special is the act of “just being there” in a capacity that is supportive and free of judgement.
With bubbling emotion, Eustis recalls a mentee who once told her mentor, “You’re the only adult I’ve ever known who wasn’t paid to be in my life.” Deeply affected by that statement, Eustis allowed it to inform the direction of the program in the years that followed.
“We’re going to make sure every kid knows that we’re there because we want to be, not because we need to be,” she said.
For 18-year-old Marantha Alexander, her longtime friendship with mentor Kristen Schott has been a lifeline during the “depressing stuff” and has provided her with another “parent figure.”
The pair, who meet for at least two hours weekly (per the program’s guidelines), were matched in 2013 and often go on hikes together. Now the mother of an 8-month-old son, Alexander encouraged her fiance, Kyler Jones, to get involved.
Jones, 22, is a prime example of the benefits of mentoring for young adults. With the recent addition of Young Adult Mentoring, mentees no longer “age out” of Calaveras Mentoring and have access to advice from a caring elder, while facing hurdles like college applications, rent payments and parenthood.
Only one month after being matched, Jones and his 64-year-old mentor, Gregg Smith, have already formed a close bond, staging mock-interviews to help Jones land a new job and working through the requirements to obtain a driver’s license.
“We set goals together,” said Smith, who had felt pulled to mentoring for some time before finally pulling the trigger. “I always wanted to be a guiding light for somebody and make sure they don’t make the same mistakes as I did.”
According to Smith, there is much to be gained from a friendship with a younger person.
“I’ve learned a lot from Kyler,” Smith said. “Kyler is the most polite and helpful person I’ve ever met.”
“It keeps me young,” echoed 52-year-old mentor Hugh Logan, who was matched with 17-year-old Abel four years ago. “Let’s put it this way: I’ve never been hip, but he keeps me knowing some of the latest that’s going on.”
Logan and Abel share a friendship that is firmly rooted in football, though their interests diverge between Oklahoma and Alabama. The two also enjoy cooking and were placed in charge of the grill during Day at the Lake.
Abel says his relationship with Logan differs from those with other adults in that there is an increased sense of comfort and honesty.
“He helps me stay on-course. If there’s something I need advice on that I think I know a good amount on but (need) a person with life experience, he’s able to help me out,” Abel said. “I don’t have to worry about getting in trouble.”
According to Logan, who raised six children of his own and now attends Abel’s football games throughout the fall, mentoring is a simple way to make a “huge difference.”
“Sometimes, older people. … they think, ‘There’s a big need, I can’t fill it. It’s too much.’ So you break it down and say, ‘You don’t have to solve the whole world’s problems. Just one.’ Just step in one time. If everybody does that, you don’t have to worry about if there’s 100 kids who need help,” Logan said.
Currently, there are 13 young people in Calaveras County who are waiting for a mentor. According to program coordinator Shira Harris, male mentors are especially needed due to lower enrollment.
“It’s a very unique role and not for everyone,” Harris told the Enterprise. “An ideal mentor is someone who sees the kid for who they are and loves to be with them. … We stress with mentors how important it is not to put judgements or values or hopes on a kid, but be there and give them attention.”
Applicants must be in a “stable place” in their life and able to commit to one year of mentorship. They must also undergo a thorough background check before they can be matched with a young person.
For those looking to get involved outside of mentoring, the program relies on donations to the Calaveras Mentoring Foundation to provide for its two employees and organize annual events like Day at the Lake.
Fortunately, the program has always garnered ample support from the community, Eustis says. Soon after its conception by retiree Marian Coahran, Calaveras Youth Mentoring’s very first meeting in 2003 drew more than 50 attendees, many of whom are still active in the program. Annual fundraisers continue to bring in generous donations, and seasonal activities are sponsored by local businesses. At Day at the Lake, the kayaks, paddle boards, equipment and staff time were provided free-of-charge by Sierra Nevada Adventure Company.
Other expenses incurred such as rent and insurance are absorbed by the CCOE, under which the program is housed. Without that financial support, Eustis says, the nonprofit organization would sink.
“It’s an amazing gift and it works so well,” Eustis said. Additionally, Calaveras Mentoring’s close working relationship with CCOE and the foster care system allows direct access to the youth who need it most, plugging kids into the program with the guidance of teachers and social workers.
“What my mentor told me is that the most important thing in setting up a mentoring program is community support,” Eustis said.
To get involved or donate to the Calaveras Mentoring Foundation, visit calaverasmentoring.org.