Shasta Peer Mentoring
By Carrie Schmeck
Photos: Betsy Erickson
If success means knowing teenagers discover who they are and how to love themselves, then Sarah Hartley is all about it.
As the coordinator for the Redding outpost of a state-sponsored peer mentoring program, Hartley invests hours in developing area junior high and high school-aged kids into drug- and alcohol-free leaders of tomorrow.
The non-profit program, called Shasta Peer Mentoring, is different from other popular mentoring programs because it uses a youth-to-youth approach rather than an adult/child relationship. Junior high mentees, called proteges, are paired with trained high school mentors. While any positive mentoring is a good thing, Hartley says, “Sometimes kids are more open to high schoolers closer to their age than to adults. They maybe need someone to just listen and be a friend. Adults, at least in the kids’ eyes, might be seen as fixing and advising.”
Once a week during the school year, mentors visit seven sites where they gather in a group setting and work through drug prevention curriculum. Kids play games, participate in object lessons and discuss overarching themes and topics. Hartley tries to connect the education with proteges’ lives by pondering life plans, helping kids flesh out goals and dreams and consider how accountability and good choices will move them toward those plans.
While there is a real need for fostering power, autonomy and cultural competencies, the kids don’t always show up to mentoring thinking they are there to learn. Andrea Connelly, now 19 and a second-year student at Southern Oregon University, says she joined because it looked fun. “I saw a group playing a game when I was in seventh grade and I wanted to play, too.”
What she discovered was a safe place, where it didn’t feel like the pressures and stresses of life were pushing down on her. She says she learned a lot about peer pressure, self-image and how to avoid drugs and alcohol. “It was just really good to have a community who would believe with you that it isn’t a good idea to do those things.”
The experience marked her enough that she applied to be a mentor once in high school. Mentors must go through an application process that includes interviews, teacher recommendations and a high level of accountability, along with four to six hours of training.
The program doesn’t always look for the traditional top student, star athlete or university-bound specimens, says Hartley. “Often our best mentors are kids who have something to offer after struggling through their own experiences of bullying or mess-ups.”
Mentors are paired with proteges and spend 20 minutes of every meeting having one-on-one “talk time” where kids can talk about life, do homework together or just play games. “Just knowing they have someone to care about them, that helps the kids make decisions for the rest of their lives,” says Hartley.
And while beneficial for the proteges, Connelly will attest she received at least as much, if not more, from her time as a mentor. “At first, it was way out of my comfort zone,” she says, but “I learned a lot, especially about leadership and teamwork. In life, you need to learn to work with others or things won’t go well, such as being flexible, aiming your team in a direction, knowing when to step back, and evaluating what kind of team you have to work with—those are all good things.”
Change with budding teenagers is incremental and Hartley notes that one of the toughest parts of what she does is not knowing for several years if she’s forged a lasting impact. But, she says, “If I get to see a teen move from sullen or shy or angsty to engaged, smiling and laughing—that does it for me.” •
For more information about financially supporting the Shasta Peer Mentoring program or enrolling your child, contact your local junior high or high school or call the local chapter office:
The Chemical People (530) 241-5958