The Kindness of Strangers in Ottawa County
Last Wednesday morning at Ida Rupp Public Library in Port Clinton a group of 18 people gathered to discuss the book “The Kindness of Strangers” by Marc Freedman. The discussion focused on how Ottawa County can develop a community-wide mentorship program that endeavors to match youth one-on-one with adults who are ready to serve and support them, so our youth can realize their dreams.
The discussion was led by Debra Loiacono, Director of the library, assisted by Connie Cedoz of the library and Chris Galvin, Area Director of United Way in Ottawa County.
The opportunity to make a difference
There is national interest in Ottawa County’s desire to make a difference in the lives of its youth. Harvard Professor Robert Putnam’s New York Times article on “Crumbling American Dreams” featured Port Clinton and dramatically accelerated the discussion on the need to help our young people.
United Way in Ottawa County’s mentoring initiative is one of six programs nationally awarded six months of consulting services with renowned author Dan Heath of Duke’s CASE Change Academy in Durham, NC. United Way of Greater Toledo President/CEO Karen Mathison, Shanna Strouse of Benton-Carroll-Salem Schools in Oak Harbor and Galvin are the team that began working with the CASE Academy in January. Heath recommended “The Kindness of Strangers” as a good way to advance the discussion.
Ida Rupp Library received a grant to partner with United Way to support and further the discussion. As stated by Connie Cedoz of the library, their commitment is “to do anything we can to enhance and move forward our youth.” Wednesday morning’s discussion is another leap toward making a difference.
United Way’s Cradle to Career mapping identified the gap for children and youth in Ottawa County. Putnam’s work and other studies have pinpointed the need. 50% of the students in Port Clinton Schools and 43% in Danbury Schools qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. This is widely accepted as a good indicator of the prevalence of poverty in a school district and a community.
“Only 50% of the third graders in Ottawa County read at a third grade level,” said Cedoz.
“We have a new group of poor. Many educated people who were previously doing fine are no longer doing fine,” added Loiacono.
Former teacher Phoebe Borman, “It is no longer okay to be poor and proud. Kids think that if you are poor, people think something is wrong with you.”
Fritz Below pointed out that “poverty is met with either contempt or pity, both of which rob people of their dignity. We must foster a third way, which is where mentoring comes in.”
It was also discussed that the stigma of success in school can be a stigma for kids, something that sets them apart. Mentors can help change that message.
The discussion turned to factors relevant to a mentoring program.
“What is working in Oak Harbor is school-based, taking adults to the kids,” said Galvin. Loiacono added that the library is another good meeting place for kids and adults.
Social media, such as Facebook postings, can be a way for mentors to stay connected to kids. “Kids trust social media. Perhaps that is a good way to start, with Facebook or Instagram to build trust,” offered Joan Hany.
Brad Hall contributed that not everyone can invest in long-term mentoring a child. “We need a holistic mentoring approach, a variety of ways of mentoring.”
The consensus is that strong training is needed for the mentors. Mentoring can’t be “parachuting in” and leaving. Just showing up is very important for the child and the mentor.
“To be able to talk to someone close to their own age can be a great help,” offered former teacher Lorrie Grentzer.
“When we look at the ways we were raised, many of the isolation and prejudices (that we had) no longer exist with this generation,” added Loiacono.
Deborah Loiacono leading the discussion.
When and how
“The Kindness of Strangers” offers valuable insight to developing a mentoring program, including these recommendations:
1. Under-promise and over-deliver with kids.
2. Resolve not to return to what we perceive as a better time that is past, but embrace the future.
3. When choosing a consumer-driven approach or a citizen-driven approach, with the consumers being the kids and the citizens being the mentors, the citizen-driven approach is more sustainable.
“The difference-making factor is that in successful children, someone has been encouraging them,” said Galvin. “The challenge is how we can provide this for our kids. The goals are that all students graduate on time, that they know what is available for them and that they have support to sustain their further education.”
Though it is never too late to support youth, the general consensus is that beginning a mentoring program in sixth grade is optimum. In the sixth grade, students are still impressionable.
Lorrie Grentzer offered that the framework of the Search Institute’s Developmental Assets can be an excellent tool. The 40 research-based, positive qualities that influence young people’s development, helping them become caring, responsible, and productive adults, has become the most widely used approach to positive youth development in the United States and, increasingly, around the world.
“Scouting and 4-H can provide kids with a broad spectrum of experiences and teach self-motivation,” said Meridith Beck. Galvin added that there are scouting alumni associations that could be involved.
With phones and social media, snowbirds are not excluded from mentoring. There is a group working through United Way on ways that those who leave the area for the winter can be part of the program.
Beck added, “If senior citizens mentor kids, the kids can teach them about social media.”
“In changing a child’s life, they change your life,” said Loiacono.
Mathison added, “Caring adults help give kids hope. We can surround kids with hope and high expectations.”
Chris Galvin discusses bridging the gap for the children of Ottawa County.
Galvin challenged the group to take the next steps:
• We need to create community will for the program
• If there is another word for mentoring, what would it be?
• How do we use technology to bridge the gap?
• How do we look at scouting and 4-H to be involved?
• What are the levels of mentoring we are going to develop?
• Invite someone to help with the mentoring program by reaching out through social media.
• Do you know the kids in your neighborhood?
• Become familiar with the Search Institute’s Developmental Assets
United Way will be funding three people to go to the Search Institute Train the Teacher Training May 1 and 2 in Minneapolis. For more information on the institute, go to www.search-institute.org. There is a free webinar on March 19.
The information and ideas from Wednesday’s discussion will be taken to the Ottawa County Community Solutions team to develop a mentoring “find a friend” program.
Connie Cedoz will lead a discussion of the book Switch by Dan and Chip Heath April 2 at 9:30 a.m. at the library. The community is encouraged to read this best-selling book (multiple copies are available at the library) and participate in the discussion. For more information, contact the library at 419.732.3212 or www.idarupp.org.
“Let’s be the example here (in Port Clinton) and show them how it is done,” said Loiacono.
Join the Switch
Dan Heath, co-author with his brother Chip of #1 New York Times Best Seller “Switch-How to change things when change is hard”, has made a generous gift to Ottawa County residents who want to help enhance the future of our youth. In response to a discussion with and request from Chris Galvin of United Way in Ottawa County, and in support of the Ottawa County Mentoring Initiative, Heath has donated 100 copies of “Switch”.
About “Switch”, from the book’s jacket information: “In a compelling, story-driven narrative, the Heaths bring together decades of counterintuitive research in psychology, sociology, and other fields to shed new light on how we can effect transformative change. ‘Switch’ shows that successful changes follow a pattern, a pattern you can use to make the changes that matter to you, whether that interest is in changing the world or changing your waistline.”