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Mentoring program aims to help children be happy

March 21, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Making a difference in a child's life has become, for some, a lofty goal.

At EastRidge Health Systems, helping a child is possible after one fills out an application, gains approval after an interview, undergoes training and meets once a week with a boy or girl in need of a mentor.

EastRidge's mentoring program pairs adult volunteers with children 7 to 17 years old who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Heading up the program are Brooke Kerbs, who works in EastRidge's Youth Outpatient Stabilization Program; Theresa Mauck, who works in the Youth Crisis Stabilization Program; and Stephanie Keffer, a children's case manager.

The three gathered recently to discuss the goals of the program, how it will work and what they hope both the children and volunteers will gain.

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Children who will participate do not have to be patients at EastRidge, but will have a diagnosed disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They can live in Berkeley, Jefferson or Morgan County.

Mentors must be at least 18 years old and willing to meet with the child at least once a week.

Applicants must complete a questionnaire, submit references and undergo a background check. They do not have to have any special past training or vocational experience.

Once approved to be a volunteer, mentors will receive training about mental illnesses, learn about confidentiality guidelines and understand how to set limits and boundaries.

Children and mentors will be matched based on common interests and whether the mentor prefers a child of a certain gender or other trait.

Possible activities include visiting museums, an aquarium, bowling, dining at a restaurant or simply playing basketball or video games. Mileage costs will be reimbursed, as will expenses such as movie tickets, amusement park admission costs, fair tickets or other fees associated with an outing. Even small gifts will be covered.

"They're only really giving their time," Kerbs said.

The program allows mentors to be a part of the community and help a child who needs it.

"They really can be involved in a kid's life, really make a difference in their behavior," Mauck said.

The three women in charge of the program agreed that they hope the children will boast improved self-esteem, perform better at school and at home and increase their social skills.

"It's a good way for kids to understand that someone takes an interest in them. A leader. A friend," Mauck said.

The program is possible because of a grant from the state Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, Office of Behavioral Health Services, Division of Children's Mental Health.

EastRidge officials already are writing a renewal application for next year.

EastRidge received the grant money in January, but the program still is looking for volunteers.

Fourteen have trickled in so far, but none have yet been matched with a child. Kerbs said the goal is to obtain 20 volunteers.

Finding 20 children will be easy. Keffer said that children ask every day when the mentors will start.

"They want one today," she said.

Some churches have expressed an interest in taking children along on group activities, and families can work together as mentors.

Families of the children also will be involved. They will meet with the mentor and meet with the project coordinators every three months to discuss whether they feel the program is working.

Possible mentors include senior citizens, veterans and college students. Some of the 14 people interested are deciding whether they want to work with children as a career.

"A lot of them are involved in working with children in another setting and they see the need to have the kids have a good role model and a friend," Kerbs said.

Ultimately, the goal is a lofty one.

"Happier, healthier kids is what we're hoping for," Mauck said.

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