Despite the odds, mentoring program plants its roots and starts to grow

“When we started this, we were sitting here sweating bullets because we didn’t think anyone would show up”


January 11, 2024

The mentoring program at Wahkiakum Health and Human Services was on life support in late 2022 when Minette Smith, the Coalition Coordinator for the Wahkiakum Community Network, was challenged to get it going again.

The program, which matches local youth with adults to provide social and emotional support, has not only been resuscitated, one year later it’s showing signs of health. It is also benefiting all involved, including three people who didn’t see those benefits coming: Smith and her co-workers and partners in the project, Terrie Howell and Suzanne Mackey.

The program had seen better days, but somewhere along the way, interest and participation waned. The pandemic didn’t help. When Smith was given her directive, she learned that WHHS was in danger of losing funding for the program if they couldn’t get it up and running again.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Smith said. “[My boss] handed me this stack of papers then gave me a folder on the computer that was just a mess of years worth of stuff. We had to figure out what was pertinent and what we needed to ignore.”

“I handed it to Terrie,” she said laughing.

There were a lot of conversations, but eventually they came up with a plan, she said, and hit the ground running.

After advertising the program last January during National Mentoring Month, the community responded. In March, eight volunteers were trained, a number that began with 10 but would fluctuate to eight and back to 10 again later in the year.

It took a little longer to get the youth involved, but everyone was matched in April. In May, the first group activity was held. The pairs painted pots before planting young trees in them.

“It was awkward as first meetings go,” Smith said. “You wouldn’t know it now.”

“The kids are not sure at first,” Howell echoed, “but you start to see the them blossom and start to talk and converse and giggle and laugh.”

There have been group activities every month since. They’ve seen a Mariners game, played pickleball and bunco, and painted rocks. Soon they will learn how to play chess.

“We want every month to be something different,” Smith said. “That can definitely include some volunteer event, but we are also wanting to teach the kids different skills.”

The mentors must commit to a year and volunteer four hours each month. They log their time and activities, which helps the program keep its funding.

They start to spend more time with each other than the requisite four hours, Howell said.

“It’s easily eaten up, you make dinner or you’re making cookies,” she added. “That takes up a lot of time.”

They are becoming good friends, and in some cases, they are becoming family. It’s a relationship that could potentially benefit the mentor and the mentee for years to come.

“We’ve had reports from parents saying it’s helping,” Smith said. “The kids have a lot of extra energy to burn. Some parents are having to work two jobs to support the family and so they may not be able to be in their kid’s life as much as they would like to be and the kids have that extra adult in their life that is able to spend the time with them that they need.”

It turns out the youth aren’t the only ones benefitting from the mentoring program. In fact, a call from a pair of potential mentors was eye opening for Mackey.

The couple were grandparents, with family far away. They told Smith they had so much to offer, but no one to give it to.

“They have that time to spend and they want to pass something on to the next generation,” Smith said. “It’s a good opportunity to do that. The group activities give the mentors a chance to be around each other as well. They can connect with other adults as well as youth. That’s the whole point of it. That connection piece and that community piece.”

“I always thought about it from the kids’ perspective,” Mackey said. “How good this is for the kids. When she said that, I realized how good it is for the mentor.”

They developed a quick bond with the kids. Smith spent hours determining perfect matches between mentor and mentee; Mackey loves organizing and planning activities; and they all agree Howell is the people person.

“We couldn’t have a better team, we couldn’t have better mentors, and we couldn’t have better youth,” Smith said. “They are amazing.”

“I’m floored by the goodness in this community and the skills that people have to share and just the time they are willing to devote to our youth,” Smith added. “I get paid to do what I do. They are not getting paid, but they are doing it for the love of it. It’s so meaningful.”

“It’s so unselfish,” Mackey said.“I didn’t know this was going to affect me the way that it did. I can spend 10 hours here and it goes so fast. There are times its after 6 p.m. and we are still plugging away. I didn’t know I was going to like it here like I did.”

“Last year when we started this, we were sitting here sweating bullets because we didn’t think anyone would show up,” Howell said. “It’s the success stories that public health likes to have.

“That’s why we all got into these jobs, we wanted to see these kinds of success stories happening. It really does happen.”

This month, the three will begin the cycle again, looking for more volunteers and youth participation.

In the meantime, they are planning a celebration for year one. If any of those trees planted during the first activity survived, they would like to plant them.

“Hopefully a place they can drive by the tree and see it growing,” Howell. “Kind of like their relationships over the years.”

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