Rethinking mentoring in a virtual world – the strength of CCUW funded partners

By John Bailey

Is the internet connection going to work?

Are students going to remember to unmute their mics?

Are they going to get the link they need?

These were some of the challenges The Council on Adolescents (COA) faced with its Lunch Buddy Mentoring program when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit and forced schools to move to remote learning last March.

With more than a year of COVID-19 behind us, the Catawba County United Way (CCUW) began checking back in with its funded partners to see how lasting the pandemic’s impact has been on them. 

lunch buddy
A virtual group lunch buddy program zoom call between mentors, tutors and students.

Every year, the CCUW focuses on finding and supporting local programs that help youth achieve their potential. In 2020, the CCUW helped fund two Council on Adolescents programs: Healthy Youth Education and Lunch Buddy Mentoring.

Now, with school districts transitioning to four days of in-school instruction this April, there is hope this will mean positive changes for the Lunch Buddy program.

The Lunch Buddy Program began in 2011 and focuses on helping at-risk middle school youth in Catawba County, Hickory Public and Newton-Conover City Schools. In recent years, it expanded into high schools and sixth grade.

The strength of the Lunch Buddy program is its ability to connect youth with mentors who can encourage them onto a healthy, positive path, a task difficult enough when you can sit down and talk face to face. The loss of being in person with students meant the COA had to find a new way for its mentors to still make that connection in a world becoming more and more remote after last spring.

“We’re seeing these students need these mentors more than ever,” COA Executive Director Jordan Ledford said. “The pandemic has affected us all, but the way it has affected the students and the things they have seen, a lot of them don’t have great home lives anyway, and the pandemic just multiplied that.”

It took months of brainstorming and research, but by late January the Council on Adolescents had hit on a plan to bring students and their mentors together in a safe, virtual setting. Before the pandemic, mentors met students during their lunch breaks at their school.

When schools went virtual, the challenge was making sure there was another adult presence during any online meetings. In some cases, school counselors could sit in, but that didn’t always work. The situation in every school system was unique because of different demands on counselors and staff during the pandemic.

Ledford said it became clear they needed to let the schools find their own path in the new virtual environment first before trying to fit back into the students’ schedules.

The solution eventually became virtual meetings done in a group session, utilizing other school staff when available and special off-site programs like Inspired Learning in Hickory Public Schools.

Typically, an after-school tutoring and homework program for the district, Inspired Learning began serving as an alternative for HPS students on virtual days with hired tutors and teachers.

Council on Adolescents started using the afternoon break as a chance to connect students with their mentors virtually. It started with one mentor with three or four students, meeting once a week.

Ledford said there was a learning curve for everyone in a group mentoring setting. Students had to get used to sharing their thoughts and feelings in a group. For more talkative students, this was less of an issue, but virtual did allow the use of the chat box as way for everyone to communicate.

The program did see its numbers drop because of the limitations the new COVID world placed on it. Usually, the Lunch Buddy Program has 130 students working with mentors. This year, there are 52 students in the program with a goal of 60.

There has been an upside to this new method of meeting.

“Being virtual has actually helped increase the number of high school students,” COA Mentoring Program Coordinator Tracey Paul said. “There is no longer a location or travel barrier for students or mentors.”

Ultimately, whether it’s virtual one on one or part of a virtual group, the COA staff know the students are better off having the Lunch Buddy program in any form.

“They’ve been really stressed out, really overwhelmed, so it’s nice to have somebody to talk to, somebody to listen to them, somebody to understand how they’re feeling and what they’re going through,” Paul said.

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