Elevate Navajo participants Ty and Lorena
Elevate Navajo: Caring Adults Available When Most Needed

Elevate Navajo, as part of Elevate USA, is serious about offering its young participants consistent relationships with caring adults—so serious, in fact, that this nonprofit pays a full-time salary to its mentors. As a new branch of Elevate USA, Elevate Navajo was created to serve Navajo Nation children in the American Southwest, where 1 in 3 Navajo homes are without a sink or a toilet. For this community then, having full time access to a trained mentor means the world and in fact, offers a window on the world around these children. We were happy to have a small part in this work by way of our small grant program.

Kars4Kids had a chat with Elevate USA President Emeritus Debbie Speck, to learn more about this work.

Kars4Kids: Elevate Navajo describes its mentors as “Teacher mentors.” Why is this distinction important?

Debbi Speck: Elevate has a commitment to high dosage relationships. In other words, we want to be with the kids in school, out of school, through the holidays, and every day. The model allows for that to happen by having teacher-mentors teach classes and mentor the kids outside of school. They are called teacher-mentors because they both teach and mentor. We believe that the kids want to succeed, but they need caring adults to be available when they are most needed. So, that’s when we are there!

Kars4Kids: Most of our grantees use volunteer mentors. Your mentors are paid, work full time, and in fact, are on call 24/7. What does it take to be an Elevate Navajo mentor?

Debbi Speck: First, teacher-mentors must have a deep sense of passion for their community and the kids in their community. They must represent the community being served, as they best relate to the kids’ challenges and stories. They also have a greater and faster sense of trust that leads to meaningful relationships. We look for adults who are already doing something like this. Oftentimes they are already volunteering to work with the youth because of their passion.Being paid gives them the opportunity to live out their passion full-time.

The full-time salaried position is crucial to our model, as it allows us to hire those from within the community to really give their lives to the kids. Oftentimes, a volunteer isn’t available for enough hours or is unavailable at the random times kids need them. Also, the salaried positions we offer allow us to really train and develop these leaders to become the leaders in their community.

Another benefit of hiring teacher-mentors is the long-term sustainability of the relationships they create with students. Volunteers often come and go. This is not good for our kids. Our teacher-mentors usually stay a long time so they build trust in individual kids’ lives, in their families, and in the community at large.

It surprises people that we don’t have a difficult time finding these types of individuals. There are so many, usually younger people who care deeply about their community and are looking for ways to serve. They just need to be paid to really do it.

Kars4Kids: The youngest Elevate Navajo students are in the second grade. Why do you begin with this particular age?

Debbi Speck: Most of our programs begin in the 4th grade. A few programs serve 2nd and 3rd graders. We begin in the 4th grade because children that age are really impacted by the presence of high school kids. They’re starting to really deal with hard decisions that are all around them. Having a high schooler who is from their community talk with them about real stuff is highly effective.

Additionally, building relationships with the kids long-term, at age-appropriate relationship levels, is important to win the right to speak to their lives. We don’t ever want to be in-and-out of a kid’s life. We’re in for the long haul.

Kars4Kids: Elevate Navajo offers accredited classes. Is that high school or college accreditation? What subjects are covered?

Debbi Speck: The accredited classes are for middle school and high school.

window rock
Window Rock serves as the seat of government and capital of the Navajo Nation, the largest territory in North America of a sovereign Native American nation. The capital lies within the boundaries of the St. Michaels Chapter, adjacent to the Arizona and New Mexico state line.

Kars4Kids: Elevate, in general, offers year-round programming. What is different about Elevate’s summer programming compared to programming offered during the school year?

Debbi Speck: The school year includes the accredited classes. In the summer there are a lot of activities, one-on-one, for small and large groups. There are adventure activities, week-long summer camps, service activities, trips to other areas, business exposure trips, college/vocational training visits, and etc. Some affiliates have the high school kids run day camp for the younger kids. Every city is different, as they have different options for activities. For example, Denver has a lot of mountain-type activities whereas Jacksonville (FL) has a lot of water-type activities. Similar activities happen during the school year but not at the same intensity because of the school classes.

The summer program for the Navajo Nation is yet to be developed. The kids will have a voice in determining what programming they are interested in.

Kars4Kids: How did the pandemic affect your operations?

Debbi Speck: Upon the onset of the COVID crisis, Elevate USA and Elevate affiliates across the country made a strong ‘pivot’ to online classes, training and mentoring. Mentors across the country were trained in online teaching strategies, hosting live and interactive groups online and strategies for engaging mentees through social networks. Training included healthy ways to understand and meet emergency and mental health needs and social-emotional needs of mentees during this unique time in our history. Group video calls are being used to network mentees from different cities as well as train and assist senior students in planning and preparation for post-graduation. The full-time work of the mentors did not decrease. Instead, a full effort was put in place to be available and proactive in addressing needs for mentees. Elevate mentors have been on the frontline for schools in delivering food, meeting family crisis needs and assisting in services in a safe and government-advised approach.

Kars4Kids: Having begun the Elevate Navajo program, what’s next for Elevate Navajo’s parent organization, Elevate USA?

Debbi Speck: Elevate USA, the national headquarters for Elevate across the country, is committed to launching and supporting Elevate programs throughout the country. We are now in 17 cities and expanding rapidly. Our goal is to be in 25 cities by 2025.