At-risk kids gain friends in mentors at CSUS

TURLOCK — It started as a semesterlong assignment that many weren't really thrilled about completing. But as their class obligation drew to a close this month, several California State University, Stanislaus, students planned to continue meeting with the young people they mentored.

About 75 juvenile justice students participated in the university's mentoring program, in its fifth year. They met, usually weekly, with at-risk students ranging from elementary to high school at 10 Turlock Unified School District campuses.

The college students helped with schoolwork and offered advice. They also listened. They heard stories of on-campus bullying, absent parents, repeated disciplinary problems.

"It's not like any of them are bad kids," said Matt Henderson, 23. "They just need a lot of attention."

The younger students were surprisingly accepting of the new adults in their lives. It helped that they were closer in age than their parents and that they shared similar experiences.

"They had a better connection with people who are younger," said 20-year-old Star Bird. "I didn't have a father in my life, either."

"They wanted the help," added Sydney Williams, 20.

Turlock Unified Director of Student Services Gil Ogden said the program, provided to the district for free, has been invaluable.

One senior at Roselawn, a continuation high school, had a mentor the first semester but dropped out over winter break.

"The mentor actually called up the student at home and got him to re- enroll in school," Ogden said. "He ended up graduating with his class."

Another high school student hadn't considered college until his mentor invited him to a criminal justice class. Not only did he attend, he participated. And he came back to school excited about college, Ogden said.

The program helps forge a long-term connection between the at-risk students and the university. Ogden said studies show that one-on-one mentorships are the best way to reach children.

"We think if we can change one kid, that's where it starts," Ogden said.

CSU, Stanislaus, and district officials said they want to expand the program, which has grown since there were 15 participants the first year. The need is clear: More than 50 percent of Turlock Unified students come from families below the poverty level, and 30 percent are learning English as a second language.

For many of the CSU, Stanislaus, students, it's a familiar setting.

"I came from a low-income family, on welfare," said mentor Andrew McCarthy, 25. "They can relate."

The mentors said they also learn a lot from the project.

That's the idea, said criminal justice lecturer Tim Helfer, who runs the program. He said his students get a chance to see the faces behind the files they'll handle as law enforcement officers, probation counselors and lawyers.

"We want to understand that there are people out there and not to look at it as just a job," he said. "It's a win-win situation for everyone."

The CSU, Stanislaus, students said they tried to impart the necessity and accessibility of a college education.

"I realized halfway through that, as college students, we are already at a place they don't think they can reach," said Ayla Schlecht, 23. "But I'm not exceptional. I told them, 'You can do this.' "

"That was a surprise to them," McCarthy said. "But I grew up in the same situation as they did. Anybody can do it."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.