Kids ‘n Kinship operates in Dakota County, Minnesota, to give children a bit of extra support in a sometimes bewildering world. That support is offered through mentoring relationships with caring local adults. The nonprofit has been successfully pairing children with mentors for nearly fifty years, a remarkable achievement by any standard. We are pleased that our Kars4Kids small grant program allows us to play a small role in facilitating this important work. We spoke with Kids ‘n Kinship Executive Director Jan Belmore to learn more about the mentoring organization.
Kars4Kids: Tell us about your demographic—the kids you serve. Also, can you tell us their age-range?
Jan Belmore: Of current child participants: African 3%, African American 21%, Asian 2%, Caucasian 38%, Hispanic 9%, Multi-racial 24%, Other 3%. The program serves youth ages 5-16 who are primarily from single-parent families or who are in need of additional support. These youth reside in Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan, Farmington, Lakeville and Rosemount, MN.
Kars4Kids: How many kids are currently being mentored by your volunteers?
Jan Belmore: Currently, 90 volunteers mentor 74 youth, with 44 youth on a waiting list. Approximately 150 youth (matched and waiting) per year are served.
Kars4Kids: How many volunteers do you have and what is their age range? Are some volunteers mentoring more than one child?
Jan Belmore: We have 90 volunteer mentors currently, some of them couples and families who together mentor with the same child. The mentors range in age from 21 through retirees. Occasionally, we have a mentor who is matched with siblings.
Kars4Kids: What do your mentors offer that parents cannot provide?
Jan Belmore: Oftentimes it is the free time to spend with the child; the encouragement and guidance to build their self-esteem; and skill-building such as decision-making and conflict resolution.
Mentors are additional adult supports for youth, and our volunteers are trained to understand that they are not parent figures but instead trusted, safe, reliable, and consistent friends to youth. The partnership in mentoring between adults and youth is one of shared interests, exploring new opportunities, and having a safe person to share and talk about things with which youth might be struggling.
Our parents seek volunteer mentors for their children for a variety of reasons including social emotional support (how to be a good friend), educational support (school mentoring support), or just to extend the number of safe adults the youths are able to rely on as they grow. I think if any parent could, they would make clones of themselves just to get everything done. As this isn’t an option, Kids ‘n Kinship is happy to screen, train, and support another positive relationship that youth can utilize as they grow and navigate life.
Kars4Kids: You offer school-based mentoring. What are the advantages of mentoring during the school day, in area schools?
Jan Belmore: Some volunteers are only able to donate time during the week, and for a large number of our school-based mentors, a weekday, during school hours, is the best time to do so. The typical Kids ‘n Kinship school-based mentor is a semi-retired or retired individual, often with a family and grandkids of their own. Their families keep them busy on weeknights and weekends, but during the day is the best fit for their schedules and availability.
In addition to the logistics of this time of day working best availability-wise, our school-based mentors enjoy the ease of arriving at a specific location on a certain day. This not only further benefits their scheduling of this volunteer opportunity, but also helps youth with their school day and weekly routine. In addition, the school-based mentor is able to rely on the onsite expertise of the child’s teacher and the school’s social worker. School mentors report developing a great relationship with not only the students they are paired with, but with the staff, as well.
Kars4Kids: How do you match up mentors and mentees?
Jan Belmore: The children are referred to the program by teachers, principals, school social workers and nurses, pastors, county social workers or by request from the parent or guardian. Information on the child’s needs, interests, and personalities are gathered through a visit to the child’s home. An appropriate volunteer is then sought.
Volunteers are referred and recruited into the program through businesses, community fairs, church representatives, social service agencies, websites, and referral sources. Each volunteer attends an Information Session, fills out an application, provides three written references, goes through an extensive interview process in their home, has a criminal history background check and driving record check conducted, and, if accepted to the program, attends our mentor training. Ongoing follow up, evaluation and support are provided to the matches throughout the extent of their time in the program.
After screening a volunteer thoroughly, several suitable children are presented and the volunteer selects the one who best fits their common interests. Parents are then presented information on the mentor and make the final decision if they wish for their child to start a relationship with the volunteer.
Weekly contact between the volunteer and child is required. Mentors commit to supporting the relationship for a minimum of one year. The goal is a long-term friendship. Our average match lasts almost 3 years. Mentors spend time with their Kids ‘n Kinship mentee sharing common interests, teaching new skills, assisting with academics and homework, and building trust. Some examples of typical activities are: attending sporting events, sharing hobbies, cooking or baking together, attending local community events (such as high school plays and city celebrations), and playing board games.
Kars4Kids: When and by whom was Kids ‘n Kinship founded? How many kids have you served since your organization was founded? Why was it decided that mentoring was the missing ingredient in your area?
Jan Belmore: In 1972, volunteers from the community responded to the need they saw for local Dakota County youth to have caring adults in their lives, and Kids ‘n Kinship was established. It is estimated that the program has served over 3,000 youth. Many youth were living in single-parent households or families that lacked stability.
Kars4Kids: Can you sketch a rough picture of your mentor training program?
Jan Belmore: Prior to beginning their mentoring relationship, mentors attend a training session that covers many aspects of working with youth, from boundaries to building trust and rapport, what youth today are interested in, and the guidelines they need to follow. Training and support occurs through quarterly online chat groups facilitated by a staff person who provides the opportunity for mentors to discuss strategies to develop the strongest possible mentoring relationships. Often, we partner with professional presenters who can provide specialized skills or information relevant to mentoring. During outreach calls, mentors and parents report on how the mentor/match relationship is proceeding and are guided by staff for optimal benefit
Kars4Kids: Can you share a success story?
Jan Belmore: A Kids n’ Kinship parent shares that her daughter and mentor have a very positive relationship. In fact she offered in a recent check-in with their Kids ‘n Kinship coordinator that, “They are a great pair. Cheryl is so reliable for her and she knows she is there for her if she needs her, even if they cannot do it in person right now. They’ve done a lot of things over the years, they have been friends through it all, and they miss each other during COVID-19. Well, Cheryl is a great role model for my daughter, the connection they’ve had for so long, I think, shows they are invested in each other’s lives for many, many years.”
Now, as the mentee becomes a young adult the pair are forecasting a long and valuable friendship. Even though this Kids ‘n Kinship kid has started to work part-time, and keep up with her schooling, time is always made for the pair to trek off on one of their adventures, or just plan a little bit of their precious time to invest in one another.
Kars4Kids: What’s next for Kids ‘n Kinship?
Jan Belmore: Kids ’n Kinship has a strategic plan that focuses on reducing the waiting list (44) of youth by matching them with mentors, providing them support and activities to increase their confidence and skills, and sustaining this 48-year-old program with sufficient mentors to befriend youth, and the funding to provide the program to those in need. Our focus is on running a safe quality program.
Due to Covid, we have needed to have our relationships transition from in-person get-togethers to connecting virtually. We hope that as the pandemic comes under better control, we can also offer seasonal activities to our participants.