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District Mentees Stay Connected Through Pandemic

D60 and United Way Mentoring Logo

In the midst of a global pandemic, empowering, encouraging and supporting young people is more vital than ever.

Fortunately for a host of Pueblo School District 60 scholars, the United Way of Pueblo County Middle School Mentoring Program has continued without interruption.

When COVID-19 abruptly forced the closure of schools in the spring, the need to maintain the relationships and supports established through the program was evident. At that time, the program transitioned to a remote format, allowing mentors to keep in contact with their mentees despite a lack of face-to-face engagement.

To encourage, support, and uplift the young men and women, mentors are employing written letters, emails, phone calls, text messages, and video chats. 

“Although the pandemic has led to significant changes in our program, what remains at the core of our purpose is connecting Pueblo middle schoolers with caring and positive adult role models,” said Tanya Simental, director of the mentoring program.

“Whether mentoring occurs in-person or online, it is a valuable relationship that cultivates young hearts and minds. And now, more than ever, our youth need the extra support and powerful human connection that mentoring provides.”

All remote mentoring options are conducted according to national mentoring standards, and every opportunity is taken to ensure that consistent monitoring occurs to safeguard both mentees and mentors.

Recently, Comcast joined in support of the program by providing a corporate contribution, as well as connectivity resources to ensure equitable access to internet services. Comcast also is assisting in further expanding the program’s reach to connect students and mentors with technology-based activities and projects.

“COVID-19 and the related stay at home orders put a spotlight on how critical it is to have access to technology and a reliable, high-speed internet connection,” said Mary Spillane, director of community impact, Comcast Mountain West Region. “We’re proud to support programs like this that help to keep people connected during this unprecedented time.”

For Denise DeNardo, a human resource specialist with the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment, the opportunity to stay connected electronically with her Pueblo Academy of Arts mentee is cherished.

“I miss seeing my mentee in person but am happy to be allowed to continue contact electronically,” Ms. DeNardo said.

Through a weekly text message exchange, Ms. DeNardo ensures her mentee is coping with the challenges imposed by the pandemic.

“My mentee is a really good student, plays basketball and volleyball, and is an artist,” Ms. DeNardo explained. “Through text messaging, I find out how she is managing, and we share the fun things and the hard things, our pets, health, and school work.”

Once a month, Ms. DeNardo communicates with the girl’s father.

“He has been very open to us communicating through this strange time,” she said. “He allowed her to invite me to some of her school games. But that is on hold for now, which stinks.”

Back in April, Ms. DeNardo paid a visit to her mentee’s home to deliver a birthday gift.

“Masks were not yet mandated, and the plan was to meet outside and keep our distance,” she explained. “I got there, placed the items down, and stepped back to wait for her to come out. Like an automatic reaction, she immediately hugged me.”

Dax Charles, head wrestling coach at Colorado State University Pueblo, is a mentor to Josh, a Heaton Middle School eighth-grader. The pair stay connected through weekly phone calls. Josh poses for a photo with his mentor, Dax

“At this point, I make sure Josh’s mental health is good and that he stays on track with his schoolwork,” Mr. Charles said. “I check his grades every week and then we talk about his schoolwork.

“I try to stress that we can only worry about the things we can control.” 

For retired teacher Nolan Warren, good old-fashioned letter writing has kept open the channel of communication with his Roncalli STEM Academy mentee.

“Text messaging, for me, feels stilted: responses and conversations feel a bit terse and short on words and it doesn’t have the natural flow of a face-to-face conversation,” Mr. Nolan said. “Interestingly, paper letters, in some ways, have been the best way for us to stay in touch. 

“I don’t remember if I wrote the first letter or my mentee wrote the first letter, but we have been exchanging paper letters about once a month, since last spring.”

The platform has been rewarding and enriching.

“I have learned more about my mentee and his life through his letters to me than any other medium,” Mr. Nolan explained. “First, he writes very well, and he expresses himself more fully and richly through his letters than any other medium we have used. His letters are often funny and full of detail and narrative about what he is doing in his life. 

“I really look forward to his letters, and I hope he looks forward to mine.”

As he does during face-to-face engagements, Mr. Nolan encourages his mentee to be a good student, son, grandson, brother, and friend.  

“But more important is the message of listening, of being a good listener,” Mr. Nolan added.

The United Way of Pueblo County mentoring initiative dates back to 2012, when a pilot program aimed at pairing nurturing adults as positive mentors to sixth graders was launched at Heaton Middle School. 

Currently, students from Heaton, PAA, Roncalli, and Risley International Academy of Innovation are part of the program.