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United Way Receives Grant to Further Middle School Mentoring Program

 Middle school for many students is a three-year period fraught with physical and emotional changes, different class structures, and new school responsibilities. With all of these adjustments, many children need an additional person in their life to put things in order.

This is where the United Way of Allegheny County tries to step in with its “Be a Middle School Mentor” program, which is entering its seventh year thanks to a grant from the First Niagara Foundation.

The Foundation has set aside $125,000 in grant funding for the program, which seeks to connect adult mentors with middle school students in grades six through eight.

“It’s just another opportunity for them to give back to our community as they do in their other markets including their other headquarters in Buffalo,” said Damon Bethea, mentor program director at the United Way.

According to Bethea, middle school is the time when friends become increasingly more important, and many children want to fit in and be a part of the overall school community.

“While all of that is happening, we’re trying to connect kids with caring adults who, along with their parents and other adults in their lives, can keep them on the right path to success in school and success in life,” said Bethea.

Bethea said when United Way started the program he noticed that there wasn’t  nearly enough focus on middle school children in terms of mentoring programs, as compared to elementary school and high school students. He said often times, middle school is referred to as a period of metamorphosis or mood swings  and the comfort level isn’t nearly as strong on either ends of the middle school years.

“I think some people are just unsure on how to engage middle school, whereas with elementary school you kind of know what you get, kids are cute and things like that, and with high school, they are a little more settled and more focused on that next goal of adulthood,” said Bethea.

Bethea says the mentees for the program are chosen by working closely with principals, guidance counselors, social workers, and sometimes even teachers in Pittsburgh Public Schools to identify which students they believe would be best served by another adult supporting them and educating them on the importance of being at school and talking about future aspirations the student might have.

During the roughly hour-long weekly meetings with the mentor, the students discuss things such as their mentor’s career, conduct research about potential high schools or colleges, or sharing with their mentor how well they are doing in school.

The grant funding will go towards paying for things such as supplies and field trips.

And who are the mentors? Bethea says they can be anyone from college students to retirees at any income level. They are people who have flexibility to meet with the children during the work day or see the value in helping a local middle schooler progress through their middle school career, according to Bethea.

 “That hour of the week brings not only great value for the young person, but it also gives you (the mentor) an insight and a sense of what middle school students are like today and some of the challenges and some of the successes that they have on a daily basis and it helps you (the mentor) to feel good about giving back to young people in our Pittsburgh community.”

United Way is still taking applications for potential mentors