W&L's “Student to Student” Seeks Local Children to Mentor
When the national Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization closed its Staunton agency in 2011, Washington and Lee junior Meredith Roberts was determined to continue mentoring the little brother with whom she had been paired since her first year at W&L.
Roberts and Kathryn Marsh-Soloway, a senior at Washington and Lee, along with Alex Shabo who graduated from W&L last year, had been instrumental in bringing Big Brothers, Big Sisters to the University. So they decided to keep all the matches between local children and W&L students and turn the program into a student-run organization called Student to Student.
Their decision to keep a mentoring program alive has been vindicated. Student to Student has made 36 matches between W&L students and local children, and there is currently a long waiting list of students looking for children to mentor. That list is likely to increase as first year W&L students apply to be mentors, and juniors re-apply in the hopes of finding a match.
“This program is a great opportunity for kids to meet someone they wouldn’t have met otherwise and to get one-on-one mentoring,” said Marsh-Soloway. “We’re looking for children between four and 14 years old, and we want to encourage parents to apply for their children to be mentored.”
Student to Student refers to W&L students as “Bigs” and the children they mentor as “Littles.”
Roberts explained that recruiting first-year W&L students as Bigs is particularly important since the aim is for the match to last throughout their four years at Washington and Lee. “We want the Littles to know that they have someone they can go to as a mentor, as a friend, to help with homework as well as for fun activities,” she said. “It’s important for Littles to have that safety net and to know that they have someone to talk with if they need anything.”
When a match is first made, the parents (or parent) meet with the Big and the Little to brainstorm ideas of what they can do together. “We strive to make matches that are based on common interests and that will last,” said Marsh-Soloway. “Bigs are encouraged to get to know their Littles by taking advantage of free events on campus and in the community and to talk with their Littles to make each outing new and exciting.”
The Bigs, who come together each month to discuss progress with their Littles, are required to spend at least one hour a week with the children and to maintain contact during breaks in the academic year.
Roberts was matched with her Little two years ago when he was six years old. “The biggest thing for me,” she said, “was seeing him grow up and being able to support him and get to know him. It’s very exciting to see him go through school and be able to form that connection with him and to be there for him.
“Sometimes we work on reading. He’s just starting to get homework so now we get to work on that. There are all sorts of things we can do in the community that aren’t too expensive, and I take him to places he’s never been before. I also introduced him to college students and what college is, which was very exciting for him. I just really enjoy hanging out with him. My goal is to keep in contact with him after I leave Lexington because he’s been a big part of my life during almost all of my college experience.”
Participants in Student to Student have access to sports equipment at W&L and the program organizes events such as a Christmas Carnival and plans are already already underway for a Service Day this spring that will focus on the gardens of Campus Kitchen at W&L.
Student to Student raises funds for these activities, and recently received a $1,000 grant from Youth Serve America, an organization that improves communities by increasing the number and the diversity of young people serving in substantive roles. Marsh-Soloway was recently a National Child Awareness Month Youth Ambassador. She represented the project and the cause at the organization’s conference in September as one of 51 youth ambassadors that received the YSA Grant. While some of the grant will support the program’s activities, the remainder will help with running costs such as performing background checks.
“We have to do full background checks whenever an adult spends time with a child,” noted Marsh-Soloway. Last year, background checks were done through a private agency and cost $56 per match, but this year the checks will be done at a reduced rate through the sheriff’s department.
Marsh-Soloway and Roberts are both W&L Bonner Scholars, a leadership development program for students with an interest in service and civic engagement. As such, they have a lot of experience working with local schools and have received help with developing Student to Student from guidance counselors and after-school program directors.
“They’ve really helped us by getting the word out to the community,” said Marsh-Soloway. “Our community relationships have helped with everything from providing spaces to meet with parents, handing out fliers in backpacks, to recommending parents who might be interested in having a mentor for their child.”
According to Marsh-Soloway, Student to Student is also great for W&L students, providing a way for them to leave campus, get to know people in the community and build relationships, although she conceded that they would prefer Littles from schools near Washington and Lee so that W&L students don’t need a car.
Marsh-Soloway doesn’t have a Little of her own. “I’ve been working behind the scenes and making matches,” she said. “With such a long waiting list of Bigs looking for Littles, I didn’t want to be greedy and match myself with someone before others have had a chance to find their Little. I’ve really enjoyed seeing matches evolve and develop. My whole experience with the program has given me insight to how a non-profit functions and how much work it entails!”
Parents and W&L students interested in applying to Student to Student should contact Meredith Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org or Kathryn Marsh-Soloway at email@example.com