Why would someone give up her lunch hour once a week for seven years? The reward isn't financial. It comes in seeing a child's face light up when she arrives, or in seeing a child advance from being a hesitant reader to a confident reader.
This is the satisfaction Kathy Davis and Carrie Stephens get as volunteers with the Stanislaus County Employee Mentors program.
Every Wednesday, Davis leaves her job at the Stanislaus County Library reference desk to work with a child at John Muir Elementary School. She and her assigned student read, but they also spend time just talking.
"I've always thought I probably got more out of it than the child," said Davis.
Stephens, a deputy county counsel, mentors a fourth-grader at Everett Elementary School. John loves nonfiction, especially science stories. Stephens has three children of her own, but finds she develops a special relationship with her assigned student.
Debi Glover, an intervention specialist at Everett, sees the benefits: Students who eagerly await the weekly visits of their mentors; students who are absent less because they don't want to miss their mentors' visit; students whose reading improves measurably.
"It means so much to those students. You can't (fully) measure the impact," Glover said.
This month, the mentor program completes its ninth year. More than 300 employees have participated, giving about 12,000 hours of their time. At any given time, there are about 70 county employees involved; right now, there are 68.
What accounts for the longevity of the Stanislaus program when so many volunteer efforts fizzle after a few years? There are at least four key elements:
Flexibility in scheduling. Mentors usually work in pairs, which means if one employee can't go that day, the other one steps in. Most students get two mentor visits a week.
Serious attention to organization. The Volunteer Center, part of United Way, assigns the mentors, and the schools designate staff members to monitor the work. Mentors receive training and have lesson plans. The mentors assigned to a student share a journal, providing updates on student interests and progress.
Support from the top. The Board of Supervisors endorses this project and, more important, Chief Executive Officer Rick Robinson is a mentor. That sends the right message to employees.
A strong advocate. Keith Boggs, deputy executive officer, is the high- energy founder of the mentor program and its head cheerleader. The county has ongoing recruitment for mentors.
The Stanislaus County Employee Mentors program stands out as a fine example of county employees doing more than is required for their community. We hope other employers will initiate such programs; there are hundreds of schoolchildren who could benefit from having an adult who would be willing to spend an hour a week reading with them.
More information is available at www.employeementors.com.