Technically, the interview was over. Franklin Elementary School student Wayne Cusimano had dutifully answered all the reporter’s questions.
He had talked about the GRIP Program and his mentor, Daryl Kruse. But now the interview was over and it was time to go, so Cusimano grabbed a cookie from the overflowing plate on the table as he prepared to head back to class, and then he stole the show right out from everyone else in the room.
With twinkling eyes and tousled brown hair, Cusimano turned on his heels and headed back to give Kruse a bear hug before finally departing the room.
“I missed you the last time you didn’t get to come see me!” he proclaimed for everyone to hear.
And there it was: the best testimony Boone’s GRIP program may ever receive, and all it really needs. Better than any state award, even though GRIP does have one of those as well. What matters here are the kids, and this is one kid who speaks volumes about the relationships built between mentors and mentees in Youth and Shelter Services’ GRIP Program.
GRIP, or Great Relationships in Pairs, exists to pair children with adults in relationships that lend a richness to life for both the mentor and mentee.
“I think the kids helps me as much as I help them,” says Kruse.
A veteran of the GRIP Program, Kruse this year is spending time each week with Cusimano. They share lunch together at the school, take a walk on nice days, toss a Frisbee back and forth, and have even been known to log some time on the treadmill when bitter temperatures keep them inside. Most of all, they simply enjoy spending time together.
“You stay young doing this,” Kruse says. “A lot of people my age sit around and worry about themselves. I think the kids help me, and I hope I help them, too. You stay young when you’re with kids. You get to meet the parents and be involved in the school.”
Youth and Shelter Services Inc., (YSS) founded the GRIP program in 1999 as a partnership between community members and the Boone Community School District. A study of local mentoring programs — or the lack thereof — demonstrated the need for such a program. A small group got together at the time and wrote a grant to form the school and community partnership, which was then submitted and approved for funding from the Iowa Department of Public Health. And that was only the beginning.
From serving just one elementary school that first year, GRIP has now grown to serve both elementary and middle school students in Boone and several other area school districts, according to Barb Biersner, program coordinator at YSS in Ames.
“Our goal that first year was to serve 25 children, and we reached that goal and exceeded that goal,” Biersner says.
The school-based program matches a community volunteer with a child who could benefit from having another adult role model in his or her life. The mentor and mentee meet each week at school to share lunch and a little one-on-one time as they choose.
“We really like that model because it’s a safe environment for both the mentor and mentee,” Biersner says. “And it’s good collaboration for the schools; it’s really good to have volunteers come in and be part of the school.”
YSS provides staff to organize and oversee the volunteers, while the school provides office space. Lori Woodruff coordinates the GRIP program on behalf of YSS, working out of her office at Franklin Elementary School in Boone.
In the Boone School District, there are currently 65 active matches at the middle school and elementary level, but the goal is always to serve every child in need.
Woodruff notes that five children are still wishing that an interested adult could find about an hour a week to spend with them. She keeps a close eye on the children who are still waiting for that one adult to make a difference in their life.
Those on the waiting list include three boys and two girls, one of whom attends Franklin Elementary School and the rest at Boone Middle School. New volunteers are welcome at any time of the year and can contact Woodruff at Franklin to learn more.
Vicki Greco is a long-time volunteer who looks forward to the time she spends with her current mentee, Kristina Van Cannon, each week.
“We do a lot of crafts,” Greco explains “And she really teaches me as many things as I teach her… I look forward to coming every week to see Kristina. She really brightens my day.”
Van Cannon is having fun with their current project, a latch hook rug that they work on each week after dining together at Franklin.
“When it’s all done, Vicki is going to take it home and put stuffing with it to make it a pillow,” Van Cannon explains happily.
The completed pillow will then make a nice ‘surprise’ gift for Van Cannon’s mom.
Van Cannon comes alive when she talks about arts and crafts projects, and particularly when she talks about any project with flowers and making them sparkle. But one of her favorite times spent with Greco was most definitely a picnic back when the weather was still warm.
“Vicki came one day, and she brought her dog, and then we walked to the park and had a picnic,” she says happily.
And while she enjoyed the picnic lunch, Van Cannon says the best part was being able to play with the dog, who was still a puppy at the time. When spring comes again, one can bet this pair will be planning another picnic in the park with some canine companionship.
For Greco, who has mentored three children during the last eight years, the opportunity to make a friend with a child and be a positive influence in that child’s life makes the small time commitment well worthwhile.
“It really is rewarding,” she says. “There are so many challenges that every child faces year to year, so it’s fun to see how the progress is being made and how they are doing with their school and their family life.”
Biersner notes that children are referred to the program by teachers, parents and sometimes even by their siblings. Several families have had more than one child paired with a GRIP mentor. She credits the cooperative effort as key to success for GRIP.
“It’s a great collaboration for the mentors with the teachers, and the school staff,” Biersner says.
The efforts were recognized recently with a state-wide competitive award. The Iowa Network for Community and School Partnerships honored GRIP with the organization’s first place award for the 2013 Outstanding School and Community Partnership.
In all, GRIP serves approximately 350 students in eight school districts.
“The key to the success of this program is the collaboration with the schools,” Biersner says. “We couldn’t do this without their support. We track outcomes every year, and we ask teachers to fill out pre- and post-surveys on the children.”
Such outcomes-based data is important, but it tends to fade into the background when mentors and mentees are brought together. What matters then is the relationship between student and adult volunteer.
Kruse has been volunteering with GRIP for three years, but it’s just one of many community organizations that he supports through volunteer efforts — which just goes to show the old adage that, if you need something done, ask a busy person.
“I taught Sunday School for about 40 years, and I coached baseball for 35 years, and I thought I’m doing plenty. And then I thought, well, you can never do too much, “ Kruse says. “There’s a lot of good people in Boone who do a lot of things for other people. I should do more.”
For Kruse, meeting with Cusimano each week is a treat, and something they both look forward to a great deal. The trick to relating to young people, he says, is to listen and let them lead the conversation.
“It depends on the child,” Kruse says. “I always let him lead, and we can talk about whatever he’s in to. You have to find out what they like and just go along with them. I always tell kids, ‘If you like something, do what you like best.’ ”
As for Cusimano, the time he spends with Kruse is a time when he really gets to shine and know that someone cares for him and wants him to succeed.
“He’s a pretty good guy,” Cusimano says of Kruse. “He kind of makes me laugh.”
Cusimano even has a favorite day of the week: Monday.
“That’s because it’s the day I get to see you,” he says, smiling from ear to ear at Kruse.
For Woodruff, seeing the relationships grow throughout the year is the best part of her job.
“I just like seeing the smiles on the faces of the kids,” Woodruff concludes.