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Help from My Friends: how the Eugene Middle School’s mentor program supports at-risk students.

On Oct. 1, the Oregon Department of Education released a report that the number of homeless students in the Eugene School District increased by 3 percent since the previous school year; throughout the state, that number has risen by 8 percent.

To alleviate the often alienating, stressful experience of attending a public middle school (only made worse with things like poverty, hormones, a single parent and bloated class sizes), the Eugene Middle School Lunchtime Program offers an opportunity for students to meet with volunteers from the community – including a few dozen University of Oregon students – and spend lunch together.

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Everett*, a student at Kennedy Middle School, was paired with UO junior Ted Acton. A counselor briefed Acton – Everett wasn’t coming to school; when he did attend class, he’d interrupt. By the time Acton came to Kennedy, Everett was almost an entire term behind on assignments. Both his parents worked long hours and were largely preoccupied with taking care of his two younger siblings.

“When you’re 10 or 11 and you’re put in a situation where a lot of the responsibility is your own, it’s harder to make those decisions to come to school and stay focused in class,” said Acton, an accounting major at UO. “What can be really important for these kids is having a consistent adult figure who can serve as a lifeline – someone who they can trust and relate to.”

Interactions were awkward at first between the typically mellow Acton and the energetic Everett. Acton would show Everett how to shoot a jump shot, and toward the year’s end, he would meet Everett and find him playing tag with friends.

“You can see an evolution over the course of the year,” Acton said. “If you looked at his attendance at the beginning of the year, and [at] the end of the year, you’d think it was a different kid.”

A school counselor or teacher can refer students to the mentor program for a variety of reasons. Some students have behavior issues, such as Katie*, a chatty sixth grader at Madison Middle School, who UO sophomore Chelsey Luiz mentored last year. Katie’s constant commotion and disruption in class sent her to lunchtime detention one day where Luiz joined her.

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Some students in the program are homeless or live in transitional housing. Some come from low-income families, or have a parent who works more than one job and cannot devote time to them. Others may have trouble adapting to the disciplined school schedule. He or she may be bright, but remain unmotivated to complete school work.

The mentor program isn’t necessarily about academia. There’s no tutoring involved; the mentor spends the 30-minute lunch period once a week with the same student, who may otherwise be spending lunch alone. The students and mentors talk, play cards or board games, and hang out during the lunch period.

In 2011, Eugene resident and then-Roosevelt Middle School mom Anne Bridgman began volunteering with the mentor program at the school. All of Eugene’s middle schools had mentor programs in the past, but many were eliminated due to budget cuts.

“I think middle school is a time when you decide whether you’re going to be a success or failure,” said Bridgman, who’s now the coordinator of the mentor program. “It takes a while to built up the trust, but having one person every week who comes in for 30 minutes can really make a big difference in a kid’s life if they’re struggling with something.”

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Students with certain issues are often paired with mentors who experienced similar problems during grade school. For example, a student who struggles with attention deficit disorder (ADD) may be paired with a mentor with the same condition.

“Someone gets you,” said Bridgman. “Someone understands.”

Bridgman said the students love having college-age mentors – they’re not as old as the teachers, but they are still relatively young and approachable. For students whose living situations aren’t conducive to being able to afford a college education, socializing with someone from the UO can be a glimmer of hope for the student.

“It’s a lot easier for kids to talk to their friends who are their own age than talk to their parents,” Acton said. “We know that from being kids.”

In the 2013-14 academic year, Sofía*, a shy 6th grade Roosevelt student, was failing math class because she couldn’t see the blackboard. She lived with a relative in a safe, but low-income home. After a few months in the mentor program, Sofía told her mentor the issue; she was connected with the school’s free eye exam, where she learned she had a serious vision problem.

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The school gathered the finances to buy Sofía a pair of prescription glasses.

“There was nobody to advocate for her to make sure that she could get to the eye doctor, have the eye test, and get glasses,” said Joy Marshall, Sofia’s mentor. “It can turn around your whole school experience.”

Marshall, who works as the Lane County Director for Stand for Children, a statewide non-profit organization, said that this case isn’t unfamiliar.

I don’t think her family had the resources, language or confidence to navigate the system,” she said. “How do you get glasses and an eye exam when you have no money at all? They were barely putting food on the table. There are lots of kids like that.”

On average, students from economically disadvantaged families are more likely to have higher academic needs and less likely to be on track for graduation, said Kerry Delf, the school district’s associate director of communications.

2014-15 is the first school year that all eight middle schools in the district participated in the Eugene Middle School Lunchtime Mentor Program. However, there is still a waitlist of students who need mentors at every middle school, where the demand outweighs the number of available mentors.

“I know there are more students in need of a mentor than we have mentors to serve them,” said Delf.

For more information or to apply to be a mentor, visit or email [email protected]. Mentors must pass a background check, take part in a brief training and commit to the full school year.

*Children’s names have been changed for confidentiality.

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Emerson Malone

Emerson Malone