Ten years ago, when my oldest son was in first grade at Browns Valley Elementary, I was volunteering in his classroom, reading with a group of kids who were struggling. His teacher said to me, “What these kids need is someone to listen to them read, in order for them to catch up with the rest of the class”. This idea planted a seed which has recently sprouted into a literacy campaign involving our local teens and elementary school kids called The Teen Mentor Project.

The teens are part of the Napa Valley chapter of Jane Goodall’s global youth organization, Roots & Shoots, which gives them an opportunity to volunteer on local and global humanitarian projects. For the past several years our group has focused a good amount of attention on enabling children in other countries to get and stay educated. We’ve provided shoes, underpants, and uniforms to children in Uganda, South Africa, Honduras, and Haiti so that they are able to attend school.

Our most recent project hits closer to home as we strive to decrease poverty by increasing literacy in our own town. Through Goodall’s community mapping assessment we discovered that a large percentage of our elementary-aged students in Napa are below grade reading level. We’ve also learned that an alarming 36.4% of Napa families with children live below the self sufficiency standard. Although these numbers sound overwhelming, we knew we could do something to help break this cycle.

Our group has dozens of inspired teens who felt empowered when they heard they could have such a big impact on our community by simply listening to kids read in order to help them catch up to their classmates. I approached the Boys & Girls Club Napa about using their space to pair teens with younger students and I discovered they already had a mentor program in place. 150-200 students attend B&G Club every day after school for homework help and support, but they only had a handful of teens available to mentor. They assured me they could put more teenagers to work if I could recruit them.

Through outreach at all of our middle and high schools, we gathered over 60 teenagers who were available and eager to help now, with dozens more who will join us for our summer reading program. Because of the outpouring of support, each younger student who needs help has been paired one-on-one with a mentor who meets with them once a week after school.

Our program has been in action for just over a month, and strong bonds are already being formed. Sindy, a 4th grader at Bel Aire Elementary, says, “I like my buddy because she talks to me and makes me happy if I am sad.” The teens not only help their little buddies with reading and homework, they act as positive role models, similar to the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. Axel Mejia, a freshman at Vintage, says “As a little kid, if you see someone you look up to reading or studying, you want to copy them and be like them. I want to be able to help a little kid like this.”

“We feel this mentor program will have an enormous impact on both the Club kids and the Teen Mentors. This is the beginning of a great partnership and we are looking forward to the summer reading program in an effort to help reduce summer learning loss,” said Mark Kuhnhausen, the Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club Napa.

We’re now in the process of designing our summer reading program and are collecting names of teens who’d like to be involved. Please visit rootsandshootsnapa.com for more information and/or to sign up. You can also like our Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter to stay up to date on all the incredible work these teens are doing in Napa and the rest of the world. NVL
– By Jeni Olsen