Fostering Elder Wellness by Engaging Alaska’s Youth
There are many ways to foster Elder wellness. Elder Mentors have been improving their own lives by improving children’s success in Head Start programs, in elementary through high school classrooms, and in other community settings across Alaska for more than 30 years. In the spring of 2014, RurAL CAP re-launched the Elder Mentor program. By providing one-on-one help with school work, modeling social and cultural values, and offering emotional support to children, Elder Mentor volunteers offer the inter-generational relationships so important to healthy child development.
Whether in early childhood development environments or K-12 classrooms, additional support for the critical process of education in the lives of Alaska’s children and youth is needed. The decision to drop out of school is not based solely on high school experiences. Nor is it an isolated event. The decision, or at least the inclination to drop out, starts early on. If there is effective intervention at an early stage, this inclination can be redirected to a better outcome.
According to the United Way of Anchorage 2012 Anchorage Community Assessment Project, “When our youth succeed and are educated, our community thrives. High school graduation is a major milestone on a youth’s path to successful adulthood. If we do not help these young people achieve this important key to their future, there will be serious consequences for the youth themselves, their future families, and our community.”
The Elder Mentor Program helps prevent children and youth of all ages from becoming disconnected, increasing youth resiliency to at-risk behaviors, and improving school readiness, academic engagement, and school and social success. Elder Mentor volunteers in the schools and early childhood education centers help by:
- Creating caring, mentoring relationships between the volunteers and students;
- Creating an environment of high expectations for students – including attendance, participation, and academic achievement;
- Supporting academic achievement through individual tutoring;
- Providing opportunities for students to participate and contribute in the classroom; and
- Increasing life skills and connection to culture.
The program will ultimately engage approximately 150 Elder Mentors, volunteering in as many as 50 communities when fully operational. To date, more than 40 volunteers have enrolled with on-going site recruitment through activities with the Anchorage School District and site visits to Aniak, Hooper Bay, Chevak, and Scammon Bay. Elder Mentor orientations have been held in Dillingham, Bethel and Anchorage. The orientations have been a wonderful way to get to know the Elders and see their passion for helping young learners. Forty-four Elders received health assessments, one of the benefits of the program. For some, this was their first medical visit in many years. An Elder Mentor Advisory Group has also been established with representatives from Manokotak, Nome and Anchorage.
According to Elder Mentor Program Manager Jan Abbott, “We look to Elders to help out in either schools or other community settings where they can work with the students on a one-on-one basis. We even work in Head Start programs with preschool children to establish a higher level of kindergarten and elementary school readiness. For our elementary school students, the Elders work with the students who need a little extra time and attention to get their homework done or some extra care throughout the day.” She added, “We are actively recruiting Elders who have a passion for helping young Alaskans, as well as schools and other sites who wish to participate in our program.”
Elder Mentor Program Coordinator, Doreen Lacy, says “This program helps teach students about the culture and traditions in their area.” She added, “We’ve had Elders work on storytelling, traditional values, survival skills, sharing knowledge and wisdom from our local culture and bringing it back into the classroom.”
Serving as positive role models to Alaska’s children and youth, the Elder Mentor program has proven to be a successful model for the state of Alaska, having engaged senior volunteers in the growth of young people since 1974. The volunteers provide valuable support, guidance, and friendship to the children and youth who are most in need of assistance to navigate the education system and benefit from it. Supporting the Elder Mentor program is an investment in Alaska’s past, present and future, with powerful results.