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Susan Graben, left, spends time with third-grader India Lezama at Leon Sheffield Elementary School. Graben volunteers to be a mentor with the Friend 2 Friend program run by the Volunteer Center of Morgan County.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Susan Graben, left, spends time with third-grader India Lezama at Leon Sheffield Elementary School. Graben volunteers to be a mentor with the Friend 2 Friend program run by the Volunteer Center of Morgan County.

Making a Difference
An hour a week can impact
students in mentor program

By Patrice Stewart
pstewart@decaturdaily.com 340-2446

Sometimes it's a matter of multiplication tables. On other days, it's all about Birkenstocks.

Whatever the topic, mentoring is giving Susan Graben a close-up view of what today's children are thinking, learning and doing.

And she hopes India Lezama, the third-grader she works with at school for about an hour a week, is benefiting, too.

It can be a bit hard to tell at that age, and India is a quiet child. She is the third student Graben has mentored over seven years with the Volunteer Center of Morgan County's "Friend 2 Friend" program, and Graben has learned it takes time to develop a relationship and get them talking.

"They're fairly shy at first, and you kind of have to pry stuff out of them, but they'll start going after a while," said Graben, who enjoys this type of volunteer work.

"I'm an only child and I have no children, so I wanted to get a feel for what kids are doing and thinking now," she said. While the Friend 2 Friend program is a commitment, Graben figures she has an hour a week to spare.

India likes to go to the library and play on the computers during their time together, but Graben tries to arrive at Leon Sheffield Elementary School early and talk with her teacher about what subject she needs to work on.

That can range from telling time to reading skills. One week recently, Graben helped her review for a timed multiplication quiz.

"I think India works harder to please me than her teacher, because I'm not there as much and she wants to make a good impression," she said.

Building character

It's that one-on-one relationship — part friend, part tutor — that can make a difference and have a lasting impact through the child's life.

"She reads pretty well, and sometimes I get her to read to me," said Graben, who is in her second year of working with India. In addition to school subjects, they can pick out character-building books addressing issues such as what happens if other students don't like you or if your parents divorce.

"I have been impressed with the quality of the curriculum and the things they're studying — a lot of it is more sophisticated than I remember it being years ago," Graben said.

"And the teachers seem to be appreciative of the mentoring program, because they have so many students to work with and it's hard to give them all special attention."

She said some teachers keep in touch with mentors by e-mail to let them know what the child is working on and when field trips and other events might require a time or day change. One had the child draw refrigerator art for the mentor.

"I collect cows, and I still have a drawing of a cow my first student did that looks like four feet hanging off a hot air balloon," she said.

Graben usually takes small gifts, books or candy to the student she is working with for occasions such as Christmas, Valentine's and birthday.

With her first match, she sometimes met her in the school cafeteria for lunch.

"Her friends were pretty accepting of me, and one asked if I was her grandmother," Graben said.

That girl was a little older and wanted to do something outside school, so she got parental permission to take her out to a movie, with a stop at Books-a-Million to get a snack and look at books.

Graben knew she had made an impact on some level when the girl looked at her shoes and said, "If you ever outgrow those Birkenstocks, will you give them to me?"

Graben promised.

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