ELKHART — Not enough local students have mentors, a problem that Diane Lucchese and Sharon Sarber are on a mission to solve.
Through two programs, both funded in part by United Way of Elkhart County, Lucchese and Sarber are seeking to connect community volunteers with students in Elkhart and Goshen schools to help alleviate any barriers interfering with their potential to thrive in the classroom.
Lucchese is a CARES volunteer coordinator for Elkhart Community Schools while Sarber is a volunteer engagement specialist for Goshen Community Schools overseeing a Read United program.
The CARES program is solely for students in Elkhart schools and the Read United program caters to students in both Elkhart and Goshen schools.
As it stands, both programs are short of volunteers.
Established in 1998, CARES – an acronym for, Communities Actively Relating to Elkhart Schools – is a mentoring program focused on getting adults who can spend 30 minutes a week with kids in school.
All mentoring happens at the child’s school and mentors can meet with a child in a place that’s meaningful to the child, like the gym, art room, lunchroom or classroom.
So far there are about 200 students throughout the district that are in the CARES program, Lucchese said. The students are typically recommended by their teacher for various reasons.
“It could be the student needs help with their reason, or help with self-esteem,” Lucchese said. “Or if the teacher thinks the student would benefit by having a mentor, they inquire about it and we try to find the students that mentor.”
To be a CARES volunteers, one would need to fill out a volunteer application at the ECS administration building and complete a background check.
After successful completion, the volunteer is matched with a student at a building of their choice. Mentors can tailor their mentoring location and schedule to accommodate for work, with opportunities to mentor before, during and after school.
“If, for example, we have a mentor that says they can only come in at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, then we try to accommodate that,” Lucchese said.
Lucchese said the number of CARES volunteers has dwindled over the years. Throughout every building at ECS, there are waiting lists of children in need of mentors, she said.
Providing some statistics, Lucchese said the number of single-parent families in some schools is above 80 percent. Close to 70 percent of students districtwide get free or reduced lunch.
“A mentor helps students know that people care about them,” she said. “It’s also important to have an adult who is there for you outside of the parent-child dynamic. And for some students, it may be all they have.”
Mentors can easily get updates on academic achievements and behavior through conversations with teachers and administrators. Lucchese said the program has been successful by improving the students’ self-esteem, which in turn, helps with their performance.
“Long-term, we want kids to stay in our communities as adults, and when they see people giving back, it’s planting the seed that someone mentored me, so I’ll mentor someone.”
Read United is a partnership between Goshen and Elkhart Community Schools with United Way of Elkhart County.
The initiative consists of three programs – Real Men Read, United Way Reading Camps and Spring into Reading.
Sarber manages the programs in both school districts. She recruits volunteers for Goshen Schools and Lucchese recruits for Elkhart.
Now in its eighth year, Real Men Read places men from the community in classrooms to share their careers and hobbies, read stories and make connections with the students, Sarber said.
The program is held in every Elkhart and Goshen elementary school for students in Grades 1-4. It runs for five weeks from October through November.
“The teachers stay in the room with the volunteer, so it’s not unsupervised and they don’t have to deal with crowd control,” said Sarber. “But it is the easiest way to make an impact.”
At Goshen, there are volunteers scheduled for all seven of the district’s elementary schools. But in Elkhart, growth is needed.
“In Elkhart, we’re in all the first-grade classrooms and half of the second grade,” Lucchese said. “So, we have a long way to go to a person in every classroom through fourth grade.”
At the Real Men Read training, men receive books, coaching about the best ways to interact with students and lunch.
“We want kids to see this as an introduction to all the different careers,” said Sarber. “So, we want to see a gamut of careers, so that’s the focus is to pull people from a variety of careers to partake in this.”
For the winter season, Read United offers Reading Camps, which connects second-grade students with adult volunteers to practice their reading skills.
Reading camp kids need the extra reading practice and attention a volunteer can offer to help lift them to grade level, Sarber said.
The camps are offered every Tuesday and Thursday for eight weeks, February through March in all Elkhart Goshen elementary schools. Elkhart camps meet from 4 to 5 p.m. and Goshen camps meet from 3 to 4 p.m.
Due to lack of volunteers, so far, the program in Goshen is being offered in five of seven elementary schools and only four of 14 schools in Elkhart.
“Reading is so significant to a student’s future success – it’s the basis for their academic learning from kindergarten on up,” Sarber said.
People can volunteer once a week, twice a week or as a substitute for volunteers who may miss a day.
In the spring of 2015, Elkhart and Goshen schools piloted a new program called Spring into Reading in a few classes within the two districts.
The program is now part of all kindergarten classrooms and preschool at Prairie View Elementary School. It runs four weeks in April through May.
“The primary goal of this whole program is to extend our community borders to regional and not keep them separate, but to recognize that our definition of community extends beyond the city limit,” Sarber said of Read United.
Kathy Fledderman, a recent retiree who volunteered for Spring Reading Camp this past year at Cleveland Elementary, spoke highly of the program.
“I am an accountant by trade so I have no experience as a teacher,” she said. “In all honesty, I was nervous the first day. What if this little person didn’t like me? I was on cloud nine and hooked on the program after just one session. The program was very organized and I do feel like I made a difference in her life.”
This year, she’s going to be a mentor for the United Way Reading Camp.
“I am anxious to get started,” she said. “Every child needs to feel important, and that is what I hope to accomplish.”
Max Yeakey, owner of Premium Concrete Services in Elkhart, volunteered for the CARES program at Riverview Elementary last year and looks forward to returning this year.
“The kids like when people volunteer your time to read to them,” he said. “They’re very appreciative, polite and want you to come back.”
He said he volunteered to give back to the community and to become a better leader.
“I urge anyone whether they’re retired, business owners or have the capability of spending a half-hour of their time once a week to do it,” he said. “It helps the community and the earlier we can have a positive impact on young children, the better they’ll be formed into young adults.”