By Janet Goetze
Once a week, Jared Harding has lunch with his friend, Izayah Andrews. Sometimes they play a ball game, too, or they just sit and talk.
Lisa Fleming follows a similar schedule with her friend, Persethmone “PJ” Jones Banks.
The relationships would be unremarkable except that Harding and Fleming are both 27 years old while Izayah is 7 and PJ is 9.
Fleming and Harding met their friends through a school-based mentoring program of the Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest, a seven-county agency in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington, with headquarters in the Hollywood District.
Instead of spending time with a little brother or little sister on weekends or evenings, which remains the agency’s traditional mentoring model, the adults in the school-based program visit during lunch and recess periods, said Fleming, who works for a downtown brew pub.
Harding, whose company provides insurance services for small businesses, usually arrives at Roseway Heights School about a half-hour before Izayah’s Friday lunch period. He gets an idea of what Izayah is doing in the classroom, Harding said, but he’s not a tutor and he doesn’t oversee the second-grader’s homework. He’s simply a person who cares about his young friend.
“Izayah and I have lunch with his friends, then we hit the playground, or sometimes we play board games,” Harding said. “Sometimes we just hang out to see what’s going on in his life.”
Fleming and PJ, also a Roseway Heights student, follow a similar lunch schedule on Mondays, followed by hopscotch, jumping rope or staying inside to work on arts and crafts projects.
The school-based program fits the schedules of busy people who want to mentor a child but don’t have weekend or evening hours available, said Elizabeth Nye, the agency’s vice president for community relations.
Twenty-three metropolitan area schools participate in the program, which has enabled Big Brothers Big Sisters to increase the number of mentoring pairs, Nye said. Nevertheless, at any one time, about 1,800 local children are on a waiting list to be matched with a volunteer, she said.
During January, designated as National Mentoring Month, the agency hopes to attract more people – especially men – to its programs, Nye said. Men, and also couples, are important because about 70 percent of the children on the waiting list are boys, she said, while 68 percent of the volunteers are women.
The current agency formed in 2002, succeeding a program that had been sponsored for many years by the Urban League until funding was cut in 1999. In 2007, Columbia Northwest became the largest Big Brothers Big Sisters agency on the West Coast, serving 2,371 children in several programs. These include the school-based, a Latino-based and the traditional mentoring programs and one for children with an incarcerated parent.
“Our goal is to get to 6,000 children,” Nye said. That’s about 10 percent of the estimated number of at-risk children in the seven-county area. “How fast we can do that depends on funding,” she said, which comes from grants and local fund-raising. .
Meanwhile, the Columbia Northwest agency is one of 20 participating in a national survey to enhance the school-based program. A 2007 survey of 10 agencies indicated children in the program see grades climb, school-skipping decline and relationships with teachers and other students improve.
However, volunteers were recruited for only a school year. The evaluation by Public/Private Ventures of Philadelphia recommended asking volunteers for a calendar year commitment and giving them more assistance.
Harding, who was looking for a program to give him contact with kids, selected the school-based program after a friend told him about it. He and Izayah first met in October 2006.
Fleming also heard about the program from a friend. She met PJ in May 2008.
Both volunteers said they appreciate the agency’s careful matching of volunteer and child and the continuing assistance of a case worker. “The teachers are very supportive, too,” Harding said.
Fleming said PJ, who has a single father, reminds her of herself at age 9.
“She’s very artistic and she’s very outgoing,” Fleming said, “but she doesn’t necessarily want to do her school work. I was the same way.”
“Izayah is a great kid,” Harding said. “I like hanging out with him and his peers.”