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Positive Role Models

New mentoring program helps children academically, socially.

Fatuma smiled shyly as she introduced herself to mentor Agnes Rassam for the first time. Her cousin Asli, who had come along for a field trip to Washington, D.C. Saturday, Jan. 14, stood quietly next to her.

But one hour and a bus ride later, the two girls had lost all traces of shyness, running through the sculpture garden at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and counting out loud the colors in the paintings that hung inside. Rassam and Fatuma were part of the newly-established Fairfax Mentors Program, a youth mentoring program operated through Virginia Tech's Virginia Cooperative Extension. According to program coordinator Denise Straub, Fairfax Mentors follows a number of Juvenile Mentoring Program (JUMP) sites in Reston and Falls Church, funded by a grant from the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2003. Fairfax Mentors began in fall 2005, said Straub, with a United States Department of Education Safe and Drug Free Schools grant.

"There were well over 2,000 applicants [for the grant], and only 170-ish were approved," she said. "I think it reflects a need in the community."

Children in the mentoring programs are referred by school counselors or parents, said Straub. The mentoring sites are located in areas with Section 8 or subsidized housing, or near schools where many of the students receive free or reduced-fee lunch. The children in the Fairfax Mentors program are residents of Yorkville Cooperative, a public housing cooperative located north of the City of Fairfax on Draper Drive. Locating the program in a community like Yorkville eases transportation difficulties, she said.

FAIRFAX MENTORS matches eight children with mentors, and tracks the children's academic progress through report cards. Although Fairfax Mentors is too new to see any major changes, said Straub, anecdotal evidence from the older mentoring programs show children with better self-esteem, higher grades and fewer unexcused absences. JUMP and Fairfax Mentors, which serve children from ages 9 to 14, also provide a safe place for an age group that is too old for babysitters and too young to be left home alone if their parents are working, she said.

Mentors are mostly Fairfax County employees who receive training and background checks before they are paired with a child.

"We do a lot of icebreakers to help them feel comfortable with each other," said Straub. "We have extensive training with the volunteers, we tell them the mentee might be really shy when they start out."

On the bus ride to Washington, D.C., Fatuma, Asli and Rassam shared the origins of their names. Rassam, born in Yorkshire, England, said her first name means "lamb," and learned that Fatuma and Asli, whose parents came to the United States from Somalia, had names that meant "happy" and "original."

Rassam, a Fairfax resident who works for the Fairfax County Child Care Assistance and Referral Program, had a background of teaching internationally when she joined Fairfax Mentors. Her work now puts her in contact with adults more than children, she said, and she wanted to work directly with young people.

"[Mentoring] puts me in touch with the younger generation, but in a different way," she said.

Fatuma, a Mosby Woods Elementary School sixth-grader, became involved with Fairfax Mentors through her mother. Besides the homework, she said, she likes school, and wants to be a police officer or a doctor when she grows up.

At Fairfax Mentors, the pairs meet for an hour once a week at the Yorkville Community Center. They spend some time working on school projects and academics, said Straub, but most of the hour is spent talking with each other or playing games. Bimonthly field trips include Saturday's trip to the Smithsonian as well as airplane rides and mountain biking trips to local parks, said Straub.

MOSBY WOODS sixth-grader Charae said she enjoys her hour a week with mentor Jackie Kennard, even though Kennard beats her at checkers sometimes.

"I can tell them anything and trust them," said Charae of having a mentor. Kennard, a Centreville resident who has been a mentor to Charae since October, works in the Fairfax County Juvenile Justice Department.

"I work with kids who have got into trouble, so it's good to get to the kids before they get in trouble," she said. The main goal of the program, she said, is to help with academics, and to support the children in general.

"It's interesting working with kids," said Kennard. "It reminds you of how you were at that age."

Shan Shan Chen, a Fairfax County employee, has been a mentor for two years. After her two teenage children left for college, she said, empty-nest syndrome prompted her to start volunteering.

"I thought, ' I can do something for others," she said. "I read in a newsletter that they wanted volunteers, so I thought, 'Why not?'"

Before Fairfax Mentors started, Chen worked with a child in the Falls Church mentoring program and was struck by the progress he made socially during their time together.

The best part of working with the mentoring program, said Straub, was seeing the progress children make in both academic performance and character development.

"I hope they feel more confident in themselves," she said.

"That they take [with them] the security knowing there's somebody out there that believes in them, to let them see they can achieve, they can go on to college."

Likewise, Fatuma has high hopes for her experience with the mentoring program.

"I hope I can visit all kinds of places and museums," she said.