Program highlight: Falmouth VIPS

Guest blogger Tracey Crago is the director of the Falmouth VIPS program

Falmouth Public Schools, through the Falmouth Volunteers In Public Schools (VIPS) Program, offers school-based mentoring programs for students in grades K-12. VIPS started the program in 1994, in response to a request from elementary school adjustment counselors who found that some students could benefit from a one-on-one relationship with a kind, caring adult. The result was the launch of Project RISE (Raising Interest and Self-Esteem), geared for students in grades K-8. A mentoring program for high school-aged students followed three years later. Today, there are 78 students matched with an adult mentor and the focus of the program remains true to its original aim: to improve a student’s self-esteem. The program does not focus on academics (VIPS has other volunteer-based programs to support students struggling academically); rather, the mentors work with the students to build self-confidence and support them socially and emotionally by serving as a reliable, trusting, caring friend.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs a school-based program, mentors and mentees meet weekly throughout the school year, but do not meet outside of school or during breaks. To address what many might consider a negative of school-based mentoring, the VIPS program organizes opportunities throughout the school year for mentors and mentees to spend quality time together outside of the school. For example, through grant support, VIPS sponsors educational field trips to local attractions, giving matches a chance to spend quality time together in the presence of other matches. In addition, VIPS mentors meet monthly to share advice and interact, while hearing from local healthcare and community professionals on topics and issues relevant to students in today’s world. Recent examples include: the role of social media in relationships (positive and negative), the effects of grief and trauma on children, recognizing signs of depression, using children’s literature to communicate with your mentee, the importance of closure in the mentor-mentee relationship, food and nutrition tips, and more.

One of the biggest successes of the VIPS mentoring program is match longevity. Mentors are asked to commit to a school year when matched with their mentees. The majority of VIPS mentors stay with the same mentee for two or more years, with some matches lasting for as long as eight years, until the student graduates from high school. Multi-year relationships help students with several transitions:  school to school, social and emotional adjustments associated with maturity, and navigating the pressure from peers to “fit in.”

One great story is that of Laura, who is a sophomore at Colby-Sawyer College who keeps in touch with her mentor, Barbara. They were matched when Laura was in 4th grade and stayed together until Laura graduated from Falmouth High School in 2011. Laura met Barbara when she was 10 years old. “I remember my guidance counselor bringing me into the room next to the cafeteria to meet her and have lunch with her,” recalls Laura. “Little did I know that we would be spending the next eight years worth of weekly lunches together, nor did I know how incredibly wonderful they would be."

"My mentor and I have grown so close. [Barbara] has become much more than just a friend; she has become part of my family. My mentor is an amazing woman who has impacted my life in such an incredible way. I will never forget that she has always been a part of that pathway of life for me.”

VIPS mentors range in age from early 20s to mid-70s. They are all young at heart! Recently, VIPS helped launch a peer mentoring program, matching Falmouth High School seniors with younger students in grades 5-8. Middle school and junior high students can be tougher to match because they are worried about what their peers think and perceive that having a mentor will make them stand out. The peer mentor program has changed this thinking completely! Because the younger students look up to the high school mentors, they view their peer mentors as “cool” role models. Much of the success of the Peer Mentor program can be attributed to the fact that it is run as an independent study course and students receive academic credits for participating. This built-in accountability has ensured continuity, reliability, and consistency—so critical to a match.

You can find out more about our program by visiting our website, www.falmouthvips.org or by contacting Sharon Sodekson, VIPS Mentor Programs leader, at mentor@falmouth.k12.ma.us or calling (508) 548-1621.