It doesn’t take long to peg Hunter Townsend and Alex Gordon as old friends. It’s clear in the way they reminisce, stumbling over details blurred by time, and in how comfortable they are pushing each other to try new things. A couple of years ago, the two flew in a small, single-engine plane, the adventurous Alex at the helm (alongside an instructor), the heights-averse Hunter sweating in the back.
Indeed, Hunter and Alex are like any other pair of companions you’ll encounter — except, perhaps, for their ages. One is 73; the other is 15.
Hunter, a retired boarding school teacher who lives in South Burlington, and Alex, a bright and ambitious Burlington ninth grader, were introduced through a youth mentoring program at King Street Center seven years ago. Since then, they have skied and hiked mountains, volunteered at food shelves, and tried just about every flavor Ben & Jerry’s has to offer.
“I’ve tried to give him as many different experiences as I could,” Hunter said last week. “And he has been very willing to say yes.”
Alex chimed in: “The way I see it, I don’t have anything to lose by jumping on any opportunity I have to do something with Hunter. It can only be a learning experience.”
Alex, whose single mother signed him up for the mentoring program in hopes of finding him a male role model, described his time with Hunter as “the best experience” of his short life. “He’s just someone to do fun stuff with,” he said of Hunter. “Someone that can help me go through things — to lean on.”
Vermont mentoring programs provide children and teens a chance to bond with supportive adults outside their immediate family. Such connections have become all the more important during the isolating days of the pandemic.
They’ve also become harder to find. Programs have never been able to recruit enough volunteers to match with every kid in need of a mentor, and their leaders say they are supporting some 700 fewer pairs now compared to just three years ago.
To reverse this trend, advocates want the state to increase funding for mentoring programs to $1 million a year, five times more than the current investment. The money would help agencies that specialize in mentoring programs hire more staff, who could spend more time recruiting and supporting desperately needed volunteers.
“Mentoring is foundation-building,” said Kimberley Diemond, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters Vermont, a statewide mentoring agency. “But because it’s not crisis-oriented, we don’t get the merit we deserve. We need support.”
On Wednesday, February 1, the mentoring community was scheduled to hold its annual celebration at the Statehouse, where its members planned to encourage lawmakers to back their funding request.
The legislative push comes at a precarious moment for Vermont youths. Rates of anxiety and depression, on the rise well before COVID-19, have continued climbing amid the pandemic’s disruption of routines and social activities. National surveys show more teens are feeling lonely, while Vermont schools are reporting more behavioral issues and higher truancy rates.
Research suggests children in mentoring programs are both more likely to graduate and less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as drug or alcohol use. Teenagers who have supportive relationships with an adult outside their family have also been found to report greater satisfaction with their lives.
“What mentoring provides is someone who is not paid to support this child,” Diemond said. “They know this person is here because they care about them, not because they have some financial interest. That’s extremely important for youth to understand: that they’re valued, that there’s someone who cares for them innately.”
Despite the benefits, mentoring agencies say the state has provided scant support over the years. In 2011, on the heels of the Great Recession, lawmakers reduced the amount of funding for mentoring programs from $250,000 to $170,000, where it has remained ever since.
Meanwhile, agencies that specialize in mentoring programs say they’re finding it harder to secure money from other sources. “The grants we normally go for, they’re overwhelmed with organizations trying to apply for funding,” Diemond said. “It’s become a much more competitive market.”
Mentoring programs, which can be based in schools or run out of nonprofit community organizations, have still managed to do a lot with the little money they have received over the years. Most are run by part-time staff, and all rely solely on volunteer mentors.
But programs were having trouble finding enough volunteers even before COVID-19 — and the problem has only worsened since. At Big Brothers Big Sisters of Vermont, the pre-pandemic backlog hovered between 80 to 100 children a year. It’s since grown to 140, “and that’s without any advertisement for the program,” said Diemond, who estimated that she receives about one adult applicant for every four children on the waiting list.
School-based programs — through which pairs meet in classrooms for an hour a week to read, play games or just chat — have been hit particularly hard. Many schools weren’t accepting visitors during the first two years of the pandemic and didn’t have the capacity to facilitate remote mentoring sessions. Those that did found that children weren’t as interested, having already spent their entire days staring at a screen.
And though most schools have reopened their doors to mentoring this year, volunteers, who skew older, can still be hesitant to go into classrooms. Everybody Wins! Vermont, a statewide, literacy-based mentoring program, is serving fewer than half of the 600 pairs it maintained before the pandemic, according to executive director Beth Wallace.
Surveys suggest that the expected time commitment is the biggest barrier to mentoring, especially now, three years into the pandemic. “Everyone is exhausted,” Diemond said. “People feel like they don’t have the bandwidth to do anything extra.”
Program directors have responded by trying to stress the fact that people can serve as a mentor with as little as an hour commitment a week. “It’s really a low-lift, high-reward thing to do as a volunteer,” Wallace said.
In exchange for their time, mentors say, they receive their own, much-valued benefits.
Kym Duchesneau wanted to stay connected with her community after retiring from her job as recreation director in the Town of Milton, so she signed up for a local mentoring program. When they first met, Duchesneau’s new friend was young enough that she had to ride in the back seat of Duchesneau’s car. Now, she’s about to get her driver’s permit.
“I’ve learned so much from her perspective as a young person navigating this world and COVID, to all kinds of issues: social justice, social media,” Duchesneau said.
Other mentors report forming similar bonds. While volunteers need to commit to only a single year, many continue for much longer. They include Chad Butt, executive director of MENTOR Vermont, who was recently the best man at the wedding of a young man he had mentored.
“I started working with him when he was 14; he’s 30 now,” Butt said. “That mentoring relationship has grown over the years and turned into a lifelong friendship.”
Meanwhile, Hunter, the South Burlington mentor, said he has cherished watching Alex grow over the past seven years — even when it has resulted in some nicks to his own pride. He can no longer beat the 15-year-old at chess or keep up with him on the ski slopes. He can, however, see the ways he’s made an impact on Alex’s life.
Case in point: After last year’s foray into flight, Alex joined the Vermont Civil Air Patrol. He’s now thinking about applying to the United States Air Force Academy.