RapidChat: Laura Ward on interrupting the cycle of poverty through mentoring relationships

"When well supported, students can make significant gains in their commitment to learning," explains Executive Director of Affinity Mentoring, Laura Ward. Striving to interrupt the cycle of poverty through mentoring relationships, the local non-profit recently added a new site in partnership with Godfrey-Lee Public schools this past fall — as a part of their multi-year expansion plan.
Rapid Growth: Where does your journey with Affinity Mentoring begin?

Laura Ward: I started leading the mentoring program in 2011 as the Program Director. At that time, there were about 125 students in the program at Burton Elementary. Since then, we’ve aligned the program with the Elements of Effective Practice (best practice standards for youth mentoring programs), expanded to two more school partnerships/locations and launched as an independent non-profit organization — and we’re just getting started. We’re adding a new site in partnership with Godfrey-Lee Public Schools this fall.

RG: What’s the average day like within your role?

LW: Since I became Executive Director in 2016, the role has changed a lot and I don’t think there is much of an “average day." Sometimes I’m at the school working with my team around program development and management or connecting with families and/or school staff there. Often, I’m meeting with community leaders as well as residents. I wear a lot of hats in this role — HR, IT, fund development, board work, program management, community partnerships. I’m learning a ton and it is never monotonous!

RG: How do parents get their child connected to a mentoring program?

LW: Parents of students enrolled in one of our partner schools can refer their child for a mentor by filling out a brief referral form. The referral can be done online or on paper (bilingual in Spanish/English) at one of our sites. A team member can also help fill out the referral in conversation with the parent, if that’s preferred. 

RG: How does Affinity define ‘success’ within a mentor/mentee relationship?

LW: We look at a variety of different measures including frequency and dosage of sessions, quality, and longevity of the relationship — as well as the satisfaction of mentor, mentee, parent, and teacher with the program. We also look at the student outcomes including growth of developmental assets and socio-emotional skills, improvement of grades, attendance, and behavior. We know that the longer and stronger the mentoring relationship, the greater the outcomes for students. And, even with shorter-term relationships, when well supported, students can make significant gains in their commitment to learning, self-esteem, and connectedness to the community. Because we invest a lot in our mentors and students, our match retention rate has routinely been over 90 percent — compared to the national average of about 50 percent.

RG: Can anyone become a mentor?

LW: Anyone over the age of 16 that has the ability to meet with a student for one hour a week during the school day at the school is eligible to mentor. It doesn’t require any special skills and we make sure mentors have all the training and resources they need. If you’re able to get to the school during the school day, commit to one student for the school year, and willing to possibly get beat at basketball by a third grader, you can mentor!

RG: How can a school become an Affinity Mentoring site?

LW: We’re happy to host a tour and/or chat on the phone with administrators who are curious about what a partnership with Affinity might look like. Simply give me a call. 

Administrators can apply for their school to be an Affinity Mentoring site online. We currently have a waiting list of about seven schools and are building a multi-year fund development and expansion plan for how we can sustainably reach this need. 

RG: Are there other organizations within the community doing anything similar?

LW: There are currently only a couple of other youth mentoring organizations in the Greater Grand Rapids area. I lead the Kent County Mentoring Collaborative and we meet regularly to share information and best practices and work together to elevate the mentoring field. Kids Hope USA is doing good work connecting churches to schools to mentor students nationally. And, DA Blodgett - St. John’s has a few different quality mentoring programs for targeted populations. We are the largest school-based program in the region. And, the only one that fully adheres to best practice standards and partners broadly with community businesses/organizations in the way that we do.

RG: What is one of your favorite memories while working for Affinity Mentoring?

LW: My favorite parts of the job are seeing the students’ excitement when they find out that this is the year they will get a mentor and hearing from parents/students about the changes they see. I was just talking with a former mentor who’s still in touch with her student after many years. The student is the first in her family to go to college and is enrolled at U of M this year. 

Jenna K. Morton is the RapidChat editor for Rapid Growth Media.
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