For 12-year-old Kallie, Catholic Charities’ National Mentoring Program has been like a window opening to new possibilities.
“I have someone to talk to,” the DeKalb County girl said of her mentor, Val Kline. “We go places. At home, sometimes we are just here, and I feel crazy.”
The program, which Catholic Charities USA started five years ago, is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. It works to help youths ages 9-17 in disadvantaged areas to improve in school and to avoid delinquency, truancy, substance abuse, gangs, pregnancy and other risky activities.
The Catholic Charities organization in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend offers the youth mentoring program in DeKalb, Noble and Steuben counties.
“Like a lot of our programs at Catholic Charities, our goal is to strengthen families,” said Nicole Kurut, the local Catholic Charities mission advancement coordinator. “This one focuses on the emotional side.”
Catholic Charities recruits adult volunteers to serve as positive role models for youth, said Shirley Johnson, local program coordinator. Many young people in the program have seen their families fractured by opioid abuse.
The youths and their mentors can be of any faith, said Johnson, who is based at Catholic Charities’ office in Auburn. The young people meet with their mentor one to two hours per week or six to eight hours per month. Mentors help youths with their homework, spend time talking and listening, and take them to fun activities and community events.
Johnson also organizes monthly group activities for the youths and mentors, as well as fun or educational field trips. In addition, youths and their mentors can assist with Catholic Charities projects that benefit others, such as a coat giveaway or packing up school supplies for children in need.
Johnson monitors each youth’s school attendance and grades with a goal of seeing both improve. She also can see the mentoring program’s impact in the young people. If a youth started out really shy and since has become more outgoing, that’s a good sign, she added.
Currently, many mentoring program activities have been put on hold because of safety precautions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, mentors stay in contact with their young person through texting, phone or video chats and email.
For Kallie and other youths, the mentors become a stable and supportive presence in their lives.
Kallie came from a dysfunctional family, said Marlene Smith, her great-grandmother. Smith and her husband have raised Kallie since age 1, and they adopted her a few years ago.
The Smiths learned of Catholic Charities’ youth mentoring program from Johnson, who attends their Church of the Brethren congregation. Kallie’s mentor, Kline, is the pastor.
“It helps to know you have the support behind us and praying for us,” Smith said.
Kline has volunteered as a mentor with Catholic Charities’ program since it began.
“I just love talking with young people,” she said.
A former camp counselor and camp director for more than 30 years, Kline also has worked with youths for more than 20 years in her congregation’s district of the Church of the Brethren.
“I’m a big kid myself,” she said. “I enjoy the activities as much as the kids.”
She believes she can help by being there to talk with and listen to young people.
“It sometimes is hard to find somebody who will actually listen,” Smith said.
As of late April, the local Catholic Charities mentoring program had nine youths matched with adult volunteers. Johnson would like to serve more young people and hopes more will join the program. She previously received some youth referrals from schools, but that diminished after schools had to move to online learning because of the pandemic.
Johnson also will need more adult mentors to match with youths.
To begin working with a youth, she needs contact information for the child’s parents or guardians. Johnson also talks with the young person about personal interests, grades and future goals so she can connect the youth with a mentor who will be a good match.
Mentors must go through a criminal background check, tuberculosis test and training. Johnson can gather some of that information and answer any questions by phone.
For more information about the youth mentoring program, contact her at (260) 925-0917, email [email protected] or send regular postal service mail to: Shirley Johnson, Catholic Charities, 107 W. 5th St., Auburn, IN 46706.
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