by Nathan Warner
“Everybody has a voice,” Jane Toleno, a local author and writer says, looking around at her students and their adult mentors. “We all have a speaking and a writing voice. You need to learn and know your voices strongly.”
The children, in grades kindergarten through 12th, write their names on a large colored piece of cardstock. “I want you to fill up all the space in your card with your name,” Jane instructs, waiting for them to finish, “and now, I want you to introduce yourself as large as you’ve written your name on the page. I don’t want any meek voices here —honor your name.”
This exercise concluded the first step of Jane’s special writing class at Reading Frenzy Bookstore in conjunction with the Mentors Inspiring Success Program.
Toleno also leads two writing groups for the general public at Reading Frenzy.
The writing class targeted for youth is just one of many ways the Mentors Inspiring Success Program seeks to provide stability and opportunities for these grade-school and high-school students caught in difficult situations.
Headed by Sarah Anderson of the Elk River YMCA, the program was initiated last January through a three-year federal grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. All of the youth in the program are referred by a Sherburne County social worker through child welfare and mental health units. They began matching children in the program to mentors in June and currently have 50 mentors and about 100 children have been referred. The mentors spend two to three hours per week with the children on activities in the community while working on specific goals often tied to improving social skills.
Anderson says the program’s goal is to prevent foster care placement by providing resources and stability for children in their home while also encouraging less reliance on the criminal justice system for solutions. While not strictly therapy or clinical in scope, Anderson describes the program as an additional service designed to offer support through the help of caring adults. These adults teach life skills and community awareness, utilizing the resources of the YMCA through Sherburne County.
“Although many of these kids come from stable homes, some do not, and it’s important that they get out of the house with a stable adult and spend time doing more positive things,” she says. “Right now, we really need male volunteers to be mentors for the boys in our program.”
Among the many opportunities and relationships developed in the community is the program connected with Sheri Olson, owner of Reading Frenzy Bookstore in Zimmerman, for a writing workshop specifically designed for the youth in the program. Sheri developed the workshop with Jane Toleno.
Back in the bookstore, Jane instructed the children to draw a picture of their favorite neighborhood, “but leave an empty spot in your picture,” she says. When the children are done, Jane asks them to describe the scenes to her. The pictures are of summer landscapes, Martian views and beautiful forests. There were no cities this time, which Jane says is new.
“Now I want you to find your blank spot in your picture and draw me into your picture,” she says, “because I want to share in your vision and I want to visit your neighborhood with you.”
Next, she has the students get out pen and paper. “Writers come in all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, smells,” she says. “Write about how people are like apples.”
When the workshop winds down, Sheri gives away goodies, including treats, journals for each child, and a few door prizes, producing smiles from the kids. It’s a fine end to another successful day in the Mentors Inspiring Success Program.
Contact Sarah Anderson at 763-230-2818 for information about making donations, volunteering or becoming a mentor through the YMCA’s Mentors Inspiring Success Program and Sherburne County.