UIX: Laura Ward and Affinity Mentoring advocate more than just memorization for students

From academic assistance to emotional support, a ride to school, or even just a friend to laugh with, Laura Ward and her volunteers at Affinity Mentoring are helping young children achieve success during their crucial years of development.
Mentors are superheroes.
They fill the role of teachers, cultural ambassadors, guiding lights, and the most faithful of friends. Mentors are responsible for everything from helping a student memorize their spelling words and math facts, to practicing meeting and greeting people politely, talking about their emotions and so much more.
"It could be simply providing a safe space to talk about what's going on inside the home or the neighborhood," says Laura Ward, director of Affinity Mentoring. Her nonprofit provides mentors for children at Grand Rapids Public Schools' Burton Elementary and Middle Schools, as well as the Southwest Community Campus.
Laura WardStudents in kindergarten up through eighth grade are eligible to sign up for a mentor through Affinity. The jobs of each mentor are many, but their goal is united--leading students toward their true potential and empowering them to overcome obstacles on their own.
"We find that when kids have that space, they are much more engaged in the classroom. They're more likely to come to school, they're more engaged with the teacher, and the parents and teachers start speaking more highly of the kids," Ward says. "We see less depressive symptoms in kids and higher self-esteem. All of that ties into better grades and better academic achievement, too."
Full Curriculum
The work Affinity is doing is important, and in the larger educational sphere, represents just a fraction of the educational opportunities for youth in West Michigan.
According to Trudy Ngo-Brown, Program Director at the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, there are vast educational opportunities for youth in the region.
"In addition to providing solid core curriculum, we have many local school districts like GRPS developing innovative programs and exploring new instructional models for education," Ngo-Brown says. "Additionally, we are fortunate to have significant investment of time and resources from the West Michigan business community to support educational opportunities."
Ngo is Trudy is director of the Teen Arts + Tech Program and joined WMCAT in 2015 after four years with the Kent Intermediate School District as a Career Readiness Consultant. 
"I also believe we have a wonderful network of programs in the area which complement students' academic experiences during the school day," Ngo-Borwn says. "Whether their interests are in sports, visual or performing arts, creative writing, or science, there’s something for just about everyone."
This sort of multi-faceted approach is essential to a robust eduction, Ward says. 
"There is some research that says young people need 5 to 7 adults in their life when their young in order for them to be successful, to gain the skills and assets they need to be successful down the road," she says. "With a lot of the families we are working with, maybe some are single parents, and others are working long hours and their child may not have a lot of support. Sometimes the families don't know who to put down as an emergency contact number beyond themselves. Having another person to be a support and widen that network for the child can be very instrumental and I think the families are seeing that. The teachers are definitely seeing that."
The right support extends beyond just social and emotional needs, as well. Making school fun and interesting can help children navigate some of the more overwhelming academic challenges, too, Ward says. 
Growing Up
Before Ward joined Affinity Mentoring, fresh out of two masters programs in social work and nonprofit administration at GVSU, she worked as a foster care caseworker for unaccompanied minors, assisting refugee and immigrant youth from war-torn countries or other
"Those kids still have my heart," she says. "Just seeing what they've been through and how brave they are and how much work they have to do just to enjoy the experience of life. It totally burned me out."
She rekindled a passion for service back in grad school, this time focusing on youth development and making a long-lasting impact on her community.
"In order to be able to do that, I work best by equipping others to do it, too," Ward says. "As opposed to just doing therapy work with a few kids at a time or with families, I wanted to go bigger than that. How many kids can I--one person--impact through creating an infrastructure or program, or whatever to make a really lasting difference? 
Burton Elementary was the first institution to partner with Affinity Mentoring 15 years ago. The elementary was, around the same time, reestablishing itself as a community school, engaging with regional partners, organizations, and businesses to meet local needs, Ward says. Four years ago, Burton Middle School became an Affinity partner, and most recently the Southwest Community Campus.
Effectively raising the academic success of an entire community, all the while removing emotional and social communication barriers, is a massive undertaking that requires the concerted support of the community itself. Each of the schools currently partnering with Affinity Mentoring report higher reduced or free lunch vouchers than many others in the district. In these areas with higher poverty, many lack access to reliable transportation as well, so the needs of students reach well beyond just the educational.
According to Ward, Affinity's approach to partnering with a school involves an even more important element of community integration.
"When we partner with a school, we really work with them. We're not just coming in and serving their kids in the afternoon and leaving. We seek to engage the whole neighborhood, the whole community, and meet whatever those needs are through our mentoring program and ancillary stuff we can tie in to that," Ward says. "We come in and recruit adults to meet with students at school for an hour a week and they work on whatever that child needs. There is also a health clinic -- Cherry Street. There is a DHS caseworker in case any family needs help with cash assistance, food stamps, or help with utilities. They've got support." 
Role Models
The screening and training process to become a mentor for Affinity is thorough, and allows Ward and others at Affinity to get to know each individual, understanding where their specific talents may fit best. It can a lot of work keeping up the role of a superhero, especially when you're responsible for the success of a growing child.
Ngo-Brown maintains that effective educators and mentors inspire their students to realize their full potential. This could include helping the students, identify their strengths and opportunities for improvement or growth, supporting students in efforts to find their passion and purpose, and preparing them to achieve their goals.
"Educators have the ability to create learning experiences in which youth can safely explore, make mistakes, and develop confidence to navigate the world on their own," she says.
Along with wisdom and patience, a mentor also requires compassion and vulnerability. Ngo-Brown says effective mentors should align themselves toward growth and inclusiveness.
To be a good mentor, one must "assume a posture that is open to learning something new yourself, learn how to give constructive feedback and seek it yourself, know when to provide advice and when to just listen, and remember your students as complex, 'whole' people with lives outside of your classroom/mentoring space," Ngo-Brown says. 
Community Approach
Ward started with Affinity two years ago as a program manager. She has been director of Affinity Mentoring for the last year, and as the organization completes its current phase of growth and restructuring, she will transition to executive director. At the same time, she serves as the chair of the Kent County Mentoring Collaborative and has been a member of the Mentor Michigan Providers Council.
The Kent County Mentoring Collaborative brings together professionals working in related spaces within mentoring. Support specialists, program managers, directors, and others including Ward, meet regularly to discuss projects and needs related to mentoring. Their meetings cover everything from best practices research and how we can apply that to our work. Sometimes they talk about things they're struggling with, and how the other members have found solutions to similar problems.
This spirit of community makes the most of available talent and initiative, and it's sympathetic to the needs of each neighborhood. Many residents in the areas Affinity Mentoring covers lack access to reliable transportation, so centralizing the community around an important local facility, like a community school, is undeniably helpful.
"We're seeing, especially in this day in age, there is so much pressure on the schools to demonstrate major academic gains. It's really hard to do that if you're not looking at the kid and the family holistically," Ward says. "A kid is not going to be able to learn if they're coming to school hungry. It's going to be hard to focus. If they don't feel safe at school or don't feel like they belong, those things can impact academic achievement. Self-esteem, social and emotional skills, how they can express those things, whether or not they're stuffing what they're feeling or sharing it with others, those are all things that we try to help support in the school and with the students, so they can do better in the classroom."
For more information on Affinity Mentoring, visit http://affinitymentoring.org/
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].

Photography by 
Steph Harding
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