Sometimes, all a child needs is for someone older to give him or her some attention. From October through June, some 31 Westfield High students did just that, mentoring 31 Bull Run Elementary sixth-graders.
The mentors volunteered to spend time talking, guiding, listening to and just hanging out with the younger students, and the results benefited everyone. They got together for 1 1/2 hours each week.
"I enjoyed every minute of it," said senior Emily Kurkjian. "I love knowing that I helped the kids I mentored and, perhaps, made an impact on their lives. But the truth is, I think they made an even bigger impact on mine."
Unlike schools who recruit adult mentors, Bull Run is the only local school using student mentors. "It's incredibly successful," said Bull Run counselor Dana Doss. "This is our third year of the program and, each year, it's doubled in size."
She says it's motivated students to improve their "attendance, safety and trust in others. And kids who've been mentored are more likely to take paths leading them into relationships and rapport, rather than substance-abuse or other negative behaviors."
The Westfield and Centreville community coalitions provide funding for transportation and food. Doss also acknowledged the support of Westfield peer-mediation teacher Chuck Hoskins, Bull Run Principal Thom Clement and Westfield Principal Dale Rumberger.
Bull Run's Russell Wagoner, 11, was paired with Westfield senior Katie Anderson. And because he also shared her with classmate Alexis Sarceno, 12, he also got to make a new friend in Alexis. Since Anderson wants to be a fashion designer, she and Russell drew a lot.
"I drew animals, and she shared with me what high-school life was like and how I'd have to study a lot harder than I do now," he said.
"It was cool to have an older friend, and we're going to keep in touch this summer and go bowling," said Russell. "We went to Bull Run [Regional] Park and had a pizza party at my school. She helped me with my classwork — especially science, and gave me pointers on how to make new friends."
Alexis said Anderson was nice because she was easy to talk to and friendly. "I drew people, trees and flowers, and we talked about high school," said Alexis. "She said it's hard — more homework and lots of exams. And one day, she brought Popsicles for the whole class." Alexis looked forward to their weekly meetings. "It was fun talking to her," she said. "And it felt nice [to have her in my life] because I'd talk to her and she'd give me advice." About what? "Stuff," replied Alexis.
Brianna Perkins, 12, was mentored by Katie Higgins. "We talked about how I liked basketball, and she told me that her birthday's a day ahead of mine," said Brianna. "We played board games and she helped me with science. We were making game boards out of the body systems."
The pair also scaled the rock-climbing wall at Life Time Fitness in Centreville, exercised with Dynabands and played basketball. "And we played Red Rover and listened to music at Bull Run park," said Brianna. "She was cool. It made me feel good to have somebody to talk to. We also took a tour of her high school — it's very big."
Sarah Harcourt, 12, was matched with Christine Henderson. Since Sarah was moving soon to South Carolina, she worried about meeting new people. But, she said, "Christine told me, 'If you just be yourself, you can make friends.'"
The two girls went to the mall together, and Sarah even helped her older friend shop for a prom dress. "It was fun," she said. Christine told her high school would be a lot harder because she'd have so many more teachers.
"Once, we went to her boyfriend's basketball game at Westfield," said Sarah. "And I could tell her anything, and she wouldn't judge me." Sarah said the mentoring program is a good idea because "if you don't have anybody to talk to, you can always call up your mentor."
Kylie Weston, 11, was paired with Ji-Eun Kim. "She was nice and she taught me how to do origami and draw a little bit," said Kylie. Like Sarah, she said Kim would listen to her without passing judgment. Kim also told her that, as Kylie advances further in school, she'll "have to read a lot of books and study."
"I taught her some English, and she gave me her address and phone number [to keep in touch]," said Kylie. "We made decorative signs [with friends' names on them], and she made me a drawing of a teddy bear with a hat on." They also played ball together.
"I was excited [to have a mentor] because my brother is in high school, but he ignores me," explained Kylie. "With Ji-Eun, I knew we were going to do something fun every time." Overall, she said, "The mentor program gives you a chance to have somebody in your life, around your age, who cares about you."
Another match was Westfield student Carmen Salas and Bull Run's Denise Ellis, 12. Denise said the high-schoolers were "like role models to us because they're older and they know more." She said Salas was cool: "You could talk to her — she was a sweet person. We'd talk about life."
Salas taught Denise some Spanish and discussed the importance of doing homework. They also played guessing games and cards and enjoyed the rock-climbing wall at Life Time Fitness. "I was afraid to climb down, and she encouraged me," said Denise.
"I looked forward to her coming because she was fun and we talked about boys and high school and stuff," she continued. Denise, too, praised the mentor program, saying, "If you're a younger child and have no one to talk to 'cause your older sister doesn't talk to you, it's nice to have a mentor to talk to."
It also made a big impression on sixth-grader Russell. "Because of [my] being in the mentor program, I'd like to be a mentor someday, too," he said. "I feel like I owe the people back what was given to me, so I can help some kid someday, too."
And Doss noted that students may take peer-leadership classes in middle school so they can be trained to be peer mediators when they get to high school. And the Westfield mentors raved about their experiences with the Bull Run students.
"I really enjoyed the opportunity to make a difference in a child's life," said Allison Reamy, 17. "It's all worth it when you see them smile." Cori Watson participated in the program for her second year. "Being with those kids has opened my eyes and has forever impacted my life," she said.
Senior Kelly Burkert did it for the first time and loved it. "Just knowing that my mentee was looking up to me was the greatest feeling ever," she said. "I will always have a special bond with her." Sarah Abel, 18, said the program made her appreciate everything she has.
Chido Viaji, 18, called the program "enriching" and "a wonderful experience for my senior year." And Christine Henderson said she'll remember Sarah and the program forever. Amanda Newkirk, 18, said being a mentor helped her "grow as a person," and Jodi Broadwater, 16, liked "the feeling of giving back."
Junior Josh McLeish, 18, said he'll take away great memories from his experience and called the whole thing very rewarding. Jennifer Zych, 16, said everyone had a great time. "I want to be an elementary-school teacher, so this was great experience for me," added senior Katie Talbot. "I intend to keep in touch with my mentee because he became a friend, as well."