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A good influence: Volunteers sought to help programs

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As schools let out for the day, the Boys and Girls Club of Franklin filled with kids looking for a place to hang out for a few hours.

Close to 200 children fill the club’s classrooms, gymnasium and recreational space to take part in after-school programs. Some are tutored on the day’s reading lesson, while others practice guitar, violin or piano.

They play basketball, work on computers and square off in games such as Dance Dance Revolution and foosball.

And at every station, adult volunteers provide guidance, add a word of wisdom or just keep a watchful eye over the kids.

How to Help

Volunteer to be a mentor

All volunteers need to fill out an application, and agency officials conduct a background check on everyone who applies. Many of the organizations have an interview process, as well.

Here’s whom to contact:

Girls Inc. of Johnson County

Sonya Ware-Meguiar, CEO, 736-5344, sonya@girlsincjc.org

Girl Scouts of Central Indiana

Beth Floyd, 924-6829, bfloyd@girlscoutsindiana.org

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana

Laura Hart, director of volunteer engagement and training, 472-3730, lhalt@bbbsci.org

Boys and Girls Club of Franklin

Teresa McClure, executive director, 736-3695, tmcclure@bgcf.net

At a time when more and more children are taking advantage of their programs, local youth agencies are in desperate need for volunteers to help mentor kids. People are needed to do everything from help children with homework to playing basketball with them to supervising a camping trip.

With President Barack Obama calling for an increased emphasis on adult mentorship across the country, local leaders are reaching out to the community for as many volunteers as they can get.

“Mentors are the lifeblood of what we do. Our mentors help kids avoid risky behaviors, improve competence and self-esteem, and realize educational success,” said Laura Halt, director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana. “We serve about 55 or 60 kids around Johnson County each year, and there’s never enough volunteers for them all.”

The statistics back up the importance of mentors in children’s lives. Students with mentors are more engaged in school, more likely to attend college and form healthier relationships.

But a widening gap exists between the kids who need an adult mentor, and the number of volunteers available. Nationwide, about 3 million children are being mentored, with another 15 million needing someone to help.

Girl Scouts in Johnson County has nearly 1,900 girls participating in everything from cookie sales to camping trips to service projects. Mentors take part by helping organize and oversee those programs, meaning that adults with all kinds of interests can find something they enjoy working in.

“We have a huge need in that we don’t have enough adults to serve all of the girls who want to participate in Girl Scouts,” said Cheryl Curry, regional membership director for Girl Scouts of Central Indiana.

In Johnson County, local youth agencies have addressed those issues by joining forces to increase their volunteer base.

The leaders of organizations such as Girl Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Girls Inc. have found it useful to find ways to help each other rather than working alone. The groups have unique missions, so that they could work as one instead of competing for volunteers, said Sonya Ware-Meguiar, CEO of Girls Inc.

Group leaders have joined up to raise money. Ware-Meguiar invited anyone who wanted to share information about their groups to set up a table at a Girls Inc. open house.

A group of similar youth agencies went in together to have a single booth at the Johnson County fair, instead of each getting own.

“We all have our own niche and own needs that we’re meeting. We’ve found it’s better to work together,” Ware-Meguiar said.

At the Boys and Girls Club of Franklin, a staff of five full-time employees and a team of 34 Franklin College students work with the nearly 200 children who attend every day after school. Some of the adults oversee the game room, where they help the kids play checkers, chess and other board games. During basketball and kickball, they referee and oversee the sports.

Sometimes they work one-on-one with the children to get through a difficult math problem or unfamiliar spelling words. Other times, the volunteers are helping coach large group sports.

Volunteer mentors don’t necessarily need to have any special training or skills, said Teresa McClure, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Franklin. By bringing in people with a wide array of interests, they can help connect with a child with a similar interest.

A musician can capture the interest of a boy or girl who loves music. Someone with a passion for sports can form a bond with a child who loves athletics.

“You want to find someone with that same interest, because that makes it easier for a child to open up,” McClure said.

Agency leaders are trying to inform the community that their time is just as valuable as their donations. While many people give to their causes through the United Way, those funds can’t be fully realized if volunteers aren’t available to make youth programs work, Halt said.

And they stress that while volunteering to be a mentor is a commitment, it can be molded to fit people’s individual needs.

“It doesn’t matter what time commitment you can give, you can impact youth mentoring. Find the the program that fits you, and get involved,” Halt said.

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