In the coming months, there may be a few more empty desks at New Haven offices in the middle of the day.
But instead of taking a break to grab coffee at Starbucks, these absent employees will hopefully be dashing off to mentor New Haven public school students.
In the wake of increased youth crime last year, City Hall officially launched the Mentor New Haven campaign this week to boost the visibility of the city’s commitment to supporting its youth. To encourage adults in the community to volunteer in New Haven’s schools, nonprofit organizations and libraries, the city will allow its employees to take an hour off work each week to mentor in the schools.
“It is known that youth who participate in mentor opportunities tend to reap many positive benefits in terms of educational achievement, better school attendance, and are more likely to attend higher education,” said Pierrette Silverman, the head of Mayor John DeStefano’s Youth Initiative. “It is our hope that adults will recognize that positive relationships with young people serve as an enriching experience for both individuals, and that volunteering is the first step to creating a culture that supports our younger community.”
Sixty adults are already mentoring in the schools under the supervision of the New Haven Public School Foundation, Silverman said, and an additional 100 people have initiated the application process, which involves a background check and training sessions.
Pat DeMaio, the New Haven Public School Foundation’s executive director, said that by releasing employees from work to volunteer, City Hall hopes to encourage other working adults in the community to follow suit.
“There’s no question that the mentors are going to have a positive impact on the children,” DeMaio said. “But they’re also setting an example for the adults in the community by saying, ‘We need your help, join us.’”
Once applicants have completed the training process, the foundation matches them with students who have been identified by a teacher or principal as needing extra help, whether academically or socially, Silverman said.
Adriana Arreola, a mentor and a part of the city’s community service administration, said she volunteered with the Head Start preschool program after college and had been hoping to do something similar when she moved to New Haven.
“The Mentor New Haven campaign seemed like the perfect opportunity to give back to New Haven,” said Arreola, who has met three times so far with a 10-year-old girl who, like Arreola, has a mother who only speaks Spanish.
Mentor New Haven is part of the mayor’s Youth Initiative, which was launched in 2006 amid an increase in youth crime, Silverman said. Though overall crime decreased in 2006, the number of young people who committed homicides and shootings increased by 29 percent, while the number of youth victims of these same crimes increased by 27 percent.
Community members and local youth have said they want children to have work experience, a safe place to go after school, and the opportunity to form positive relationships with their parents or other adults, Silverman said.
Though Mentor New Haven is intended to help address the underlying problems contributing to youth crime, Silverman said plans for the initiative were in the works before the 2006 crime statistics showing the rise in youth violence came out.
While the New Haven Public School Foundation places mentors in nearly all city public elementary schools, the Mentor New Haven program will focus on building up the mentoring programs in six schools: Columbus Family Academy, John S. Martinez School, John C. Daniels School, Timothy Dwight School, Truman School and Edgewood Magnet School.
Sequella Coleman, principal of the John S. Martinez School, said that though the school has had tutors affiliated with it in the past, this is the first time her students will have mentors.
“It’s new, and I’m not sure what it’s going to accomplish at this point,” Coleman said. “But any human contact, anyone who’s caring, will help in the child’s life.”
The application process for the mentoring program is rolling, Silverman said, and the next training session is tentatively scheduled for the end of April.
Other components of the Youth Initiative include the Open School Initiative, which aims to provide recreational activities and homework help for local youth, and the Youth at Work program, which creates employment opportunities for young people.