Article by Ede Valiquette

garden box“I never miss 4-H, my mentor thinks I’m special” says a mentee from the Connecticut 4-H Mentoring project. A parent says, “my child is never sick on 4-H day.” The Connecticut 4-H Mentoring Project is a prevention program designed to assist youth in acquiring knowledge, building character, and developing life skills in a fun learning environment that will help them become self-directing, productive members of society. Waterbury and Bridgeport have participated in the Connecticut 4-H Mentoring Project for 7 years, and are presently serving 120 youth, ages 10-14. The National 4-H Council, through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, funds this program.

Mentoring is a proven strategy for helping at-risk youth achieve a better future. Youth are more likely to succeed in life when they have the additional support of a caring, consistent adult mentor. Sharon Stoyer, Bridgeport site coordinator says, “Mentoring can have a profound impact on a youth. Having a mentor can enhance a young person’s learning skills and help build resiliency and self-control.”

Youth with mentors are less likely to engage in risky behavior with drugs and alcohol. They are more likely to develop positive relationships with peers and adults; hold a leadership position in a club, school council, sports team or other group; enroll in college; volunteer regularly in their communities and grow up to become productive members of society. Mentors provide the spark that encourages youth to dream and achieve.

“Be a Mentor-Change Two Lives” is a popular slogan in mentoring programs. Why? Mentoring does in fact improve the mentor’s life. How? Research shows that mentoring can:

  • provide a sense of health and well-being;
  • improve one’s self-image and self-worth;
  • provide a sense of feeling valued, needed, appreciated, competent, and accomplished; and
  • provide a sense of satisfaction from giving back to the community, and earning the respect of others by contributing to society in a very important way.

How does the Connecticut 4-H Mentoring Project make a difference? Its goals are to increase the interpersonal skills of selected youth and to strengthen their family bonds through a 12-month mentoring program. The project consists of three components, mentoring, 4-H activities, and family nights. All three collectively contribute to positive impacts. Mentoring and 4-H are conducted in small groups, one mentor to a maximum of four youth. 4-H Mentor groups meet weekly, with activities such as cooking, technology, gardening, crafts, dance, or karate. To be a Connecticut 4-H group in good standing, 4-H mentor groups must keep records; perform a community service project; participate in public speaking activities; and assume leadership for their group’s functioning. Through 4-H group mentoring, youth learn teamwork, critical thinking, public speaking, leadership, decision-making, communication, and record keeping.

Family Nights are a critical component of the program. These nights are designed to foster family bonds through fun and experiential learning. Each night has an activity related either to building trust, family support, positive family communications, working together, problem solving, or family traditions. Families eat a light dinner, complete and process the activity, and have fun. Field trips to the Big E, apple picking, and county fairs also provide an opportunity for youth and their families to learn new things about the world, and each other, while having fun.

All mentors undergo the UConn 4-H volunteer application process, and then receive additional training on how to be an effective mentor. Parental involvement is key to a child’s success. Before joining, mentoring staff meets the parents, explains the program, and the parents’ responsibilities to it.

Realizing it takes a village to improve the lives of youth and their families, the Connecticut 4-H Mentoring Project partners with local agencies to fulfill project goals. In Bridgeport, Barnum and Cesar Batalla Elementary Schools are community partners. According to Margaret Grillo, 4-H Educator and Co-Principal Investigator, “UConn 4-H and Extension has worked with Waterbury Youth Service System, (WYSS) Inc., our Waterbury partner, for over 25 years. Partnering with them augments the impact of grant funds. Adding the 4-H Mentoring Project provides an opportunity for WYSS youth and their families to broaden their horizons with positive involvement in all of the activities, events and training that 4-H Mentoring and UConn 4-H has to offer. It’s a win–win for both agencies, and for youth and their families.”