Elder mentors create positive change for youth
August 1, 2019
Like many transplants from the Lower 48, a job offer lured me up to Alaska. No, you won't find me welding on a pipeline or commercial fishing on the Bering Sea, but as a program coordinator for a large nonprofit, I've gotten to do a bit of traveling during my first year here. From Homer to Fairbanks, Bethel to Tok, Glenallen to Haines, Palmer to Dillingham, and at all the stops along the way, I've gotten to meet and work with many remarkable seniors – not just from Alaska, but from all over the world.
In partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc. (RurAL CAP) has been administering the Senior Corps Foster Grandparent Program statewide for more than five years. Known as Alaska Elder Mentors, our volunteers (age 55 or better) commit five or more hours each week to working with children at Head Starts, preschool centers, K-12 schools, and youth facilities across the state. As volunteers, these seniors help support academic engagement, promote healthy social and emotional development, and expand cultural learning opportunities for hundreds of children in Alaska.
Take, for example, Manuel O'Ryan. At 89 years of age, O'Ryan is currently our "most senior" volunteer, and has admirably chosen to spend his time working with teens at the McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage. O'Ryan, a native Chilean, began his Alaska residency in the early 1990s and, as an Elder Mentor, he has combined his passion for education and youth development with his love for playing chess. Fluent in both English and Spanish, he serves as a mentor and role model to many teens housed at McLaughlin, reinforcing the virtues of patience and discipline while providing comfort and counsel from across a chessboard.
There's also Lola Evan, who joined the Elder Mentors just last fall from her home village of Kwethluk, where she spends time each week reading with children at the local Head Start.
And, of course, there's Joe Chanerak, a 30-year veteran of the Army National Guard who now volunteers at Chevak School, where he puts his knowledge of the region's history and geography to use, sharing folklore, Native culture, and the Cup'ik language with students. And I can't forget to mention Loretta Huska in Palmer, who just recently received a well-deserved
"Champion for Children" award from the Mat-Su Education Association in recognition of the one-on-one instruction she gives to students at Swanson Elementary every school day. There are dozens more, in cities and villages across the state, each making a unique impact on youth in their communities.
Most of the Elder Mentors I talk to have stories they can't wait to share - the funny thing a child said to them before class, the shared triumph of a student who's finally mastered a challenging subject, or the simple gratification of a spontaneous hug. I hear about parents who stop and introduce themselves to our volunteers at the grocery store or the post office, thanking them for helping their children learn to read or write. The impact that our volunteers have on youth is undeniable. According to teachers surveyed during the 2017-2018 school year, as a result of having Elder Mentors in their classrooms, 92% of K-12 students are more academically engaged, and 94% of preschoolers have improved in their overall Kindergarten readiness.
Equally compelling is the data illustrating the benefits to volunteers themselves. Earlier this year, CNCS released a national independent study which concluded that the work Senior Corps volunteers are doing not only improves the lives of others, but it also improves their own. After two years of participating in a volunteer program such as Alaska Elder Mentors, 88% of volunteers reported fewer feelings of isolation, 84% reported stable or improving health, and 78% reported fewer symptoms of depression.
So if you've got a little bit of spare time on your hands and you're looking for something meaningful to do in your community, consider volunteering as an Elder Mentor, and it just might do you some good. In addition to periodic trainings and ongoing support, RurAL CAP offers reimbursement to volunteers for meals and mileage associated with volunteer service, and lower-income applicants can be eligible to receive an additional tax-exempt stipend for their volunteer hours.
For more information about the Alaska Elder Mentor volunteer program, please contact Ted Irvin by phone at (907) 865-7354 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ted Irvin is the Elder Mentor Program Coordinator at RurAL CAP.