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02/22/2013

Students Lay Bridges for Kids Groundwork

No time is off limits for SUNY Cortland junior Christine Mosich and the two local sisters she mentors through the YWCA’s Bridges for Kids program — even if that means being pulled away from the halftime show of the Super Bowl.

It was during Beyoncé’s dance routine when Mosich, a junior childhood/early childhood education major, received a phone call requesting help with a sixth-grade algebra problem. On the line was 11-year-old Nina Oliver, one of the girls Mosich mentors.

“They both know they can call whenever they need me, no matter what time it is,” said Mosich, referring to Oliver and her half-sister, 8-year-old Richelle Gleason.

That mutual understanding was born out of a three-year relationship that seems more like a sisterhood than a friendship. It’s indicative of a pact shared by many SUNY Cortland students and the local children who they mentor through the Bridges for Kids program, a YWCA effort. Now in its 32nd year, the program serves roughly 150 youths who can benefit from a positive role model.

“Without (the college students), we wouldn’t be able to run,” said Sara Earl, the director of the Bridges for Kids program.

Of the 90 adult mentors working with local children in 2013, 70 are SUNY Cortland students.

“It’s just something that makes my college experience worthwhile,” said Mosich, a Penn Yan, N.Y., native who grew up in a house where her mother ran a home daycare business. “When I came (to SUNY Cortland), I felt like something was missing and I realized pretty early on that it was being around kids.”

The goal of the program isn’t simply to connect play pals of different ages, Earl said. Specifically, the aim is to cement children’s’ confidence and problem-solving skills through positive experiences. In nearly every instance, Bridges for Kids children are growing up below the poverty line or they’re experiencing some form of stress at home.

“It’s not that parents don’t love their children or that they don’t want to spend time with them,” Earl said. “In most cases, they’re just jumping from one issue to the next.”

That’s where the mentors — many of them SUNY Cortland students — come in.

Bridges for Kids

Above: Christine Mosich, center, a SUNY Cortland junior, paints crafts with 11-year-old Nina Oliver, left, and 8-year-old Richelle Gleason.

Top left: Ryan Brennan, right, a SUNY Cortland junior, works with 7-year-old Seth Bergman to swing a tennis racket in the Cortland YWCA gymnasium.

They’re expected to spend two hours each week with the children, although many opt for more. That time can include anything from arts and crafts to board games to free use of the YWCA’s swimming pool or gym facilities. Mentors also are free to take their children on impromptu field trips or out to dinner if they’re in the mood.

The program, which accepts children age 12 and younger, is free to its participants and supported financially by the YWCA.

Earl requests that the college students stress basic lessons in key areas such as education and nutrition. As for a syllabus, that’s about it. The College’s student volunteers come from all disciplines. Although many are childhood/early childhood education majors, their areas of study include community health; recreation, parks and leisure studies; biological sciences; and more.

“I tell the college kids all the time: ‘You’re not a tutor, but I need you to stress education,’” Earl said. “By asking questions and by showing an interest, the children think: ‘Wow, my mentor must care and think that this is important.’

“They know that someone’s looking out for them.”

The long-term results seem to suggest as much. Earl said she notices a dramatic increase in school attendance and a significant drop in high-risk behaviors among the children.

And what’s just as impressive is the payoff the program brings to the college-aged mentors.

“The idea is that you’re increasing a child’s self esteem,” Earl said. “But the reality is that the mentors find out a lot about themselves.”

Ryan Brennan, a junior kinesiology: fitness development major, admitted as much after participating as a mentor for the first time in late January. With 7-year-old Seth Bergman, Brennan said he felt needed in a way that’s hard to replicate in a traditional college setting.

“It’s like therapy, and not just for him,” said Brennan, who also has worked as a YMCA summer camp counselor in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y. “It’s like that for me too.”

Mosich hasn’t yet decided if she wants to teach in an elementary school classroom or pursue a career related to higher education. But one thing she does know, based on her weekly interactions with her two “little sisters”, is that she’s become more comfortable in dealing with children and more aware of the diverse backgrounds from which they come.

“Once I saw how excited it made them when I went to their concerts and sporting events unannounced, it just became that much more real for me,” said Mosich, who went so far as to communicate via Skype with Oliver and Gleason while she studied abroad in England as a sophomore.

Looking to the rest of 2013 and beyond, Earl realizes that inevitable road bumps exist in providing mentors when college students migrate from Cortland for seasonal breaks or graduations.

But she takes comfort knowing that there’s a steady stream of college students flowing down Clayton Avenue, willing to create Bridges for Kids inroads like the one Mosich has formed and the one Brennan recently broke ground on.

“Even after students graduate from Cortland and the children phase out of the program, this is something that they can take with them for the rest of their lives,” Earl said. “That’s my idea of mentoring.”