Local youth mentoring program sees growth
ESCANABA — A new youth mentoring program, now in its second year in Delta County, has seen exponential growth in the past year. The success of Youth Empowering Services, commonly known as “YES,” hinges on a combination of a unique, home-grown model and the mentors and donors who keep the program running.
“I’m super happy and proud to say it’s a thriving program,” said Tiffany Hewitt, executive director of YES.
YES was formed following the dissolution of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bay Area, which closed in 2022. Seeing a continued need for youth support in the area, Hewitt and others concerned about Delta County youth joined forces with the Community Foundation for Delta County to develop a locally-focused program from the ground up.
While YES is working towards broadening its mentorship offerings, most of the programs YES offers take place in schools, creating a safe and neutral ground for both the students themselves and the mentors. Most students who receive mentorship are chosen by the schools — with permission slips sent home to parents — but a small percentage are recommended by parents themselves.
“It can be anyone. Maybe a child just experienced a loss in the family, maybe they’re the eldest sibling of five and they just need some attention; maybe they’re just going through a behavioral change,” said Hewitt.
While mentoring looks different for every age group and every individual child, a typical mentoring session for a fifth-grade student would be to have lunch with their mentor in a group setting, discuss anything going on in the child’s life that they might want to share and, if the child wants to, do some sort of activity like going for a walk or playing a game.
The sessions are highly flexible and are focused on connecting with the student, not necessarily following planned activities.
“Whatever they’re feeling, that’s what they and their mentor do,” said Hewitt.
The program officially started Sept. 1, 2022, and initially only six children received assistance through the program. A little more than a year later, that number has grown to more than 160 children, and Hewitt believes at least 200 students will participate in YES before the end of the school year.
The success of the program means mentors are needed more than ever. Currently, there are around 65 mentors, many of whom mentor at more than one school.
“We have a lot of people that want to be involved finding a way to put it in their schedule. It’s minimal. We follow the school calendars and we meet once each week at each school for either 30 minutes to one hour,” said Hewitt.
Some mentors are part of employer partnerships, where employers allow their staff to remain on the clock for the time they are out mentoring. Hewitt hopes more employers will consider partnering with YES in this way, as it is difficult to get consistent mentors who also have full-time jobs.
However, many of the the volunteer mentors currently working through YES are parents or others who might already be visiting a school, are self-employed, or have free time in their schedule during the school day. Anyone who has that flexibility can sign up to mentor by visiting www.yes906.com/sign up or calling YES at 906-786-6654.
When potential mentors fill out the form on the YES website, they are asked what schools and age ranges they are interested in working with. This helps ensure a good fit, as mentors may find it easier to communicate with younger children or older students, depending on their own personalities and life experiences.
“The YES Program positively impacts everyone involved. Mentoring is a great way for students and mentors to feel included, heard, and valued,” said Elle Dykowski, YES mentor at Escanaba Student Success Center.
Unlike other levels of YES mentoring, the Student Success Center mentors focus on life skills as well as on providing emotional support.
“It’s the only program we have really almost have like a curriculum for in a way, because once these seniors finish up at the Success Center, they’re moving on. They’re no longer a student. So we are trying to dot the i’s the cross the t’s that if there’s anything we can help them with in this short time they’re prepared for more independent living,” said Hewitt.
In the future, YES is looking into offering afterschool mentoring and mentoring in other settings. It is already working to launch a mentoring program at Bay Pines Center, the youth residential detention center in Escanaba.
YES is also responsible for a new sub-fund maintained at the Community Foundation that offers support for at risk students to improve their educational experience through things like personal items or financial assistance to sign up for sports. These children do not need to be a part of YES’s mentoring program, but YES must have some sort of relationship with the school or child so that it can approve the support and pass the assistance on directly to the student.
The fund, known as the Youth Aide Gift Opportunity Fund or “YAGO,” was started by a $10,000 donation from the family of Greg Yagodzinski.
“Working with these amazing kids made me realize that they don’t have access to some of the things that my parents provided; the things that made school enjoyable, the same things I had taken for granted. I can’t think of a better way to honor my father while he is still alive than to follow his example and pay some of my blessings forward,” said Melissa-Bonifas Ness of the fund started in honor of her father. “I want to give kids a leg up and want my dad to know that his kindness and generosity has compounded and expanded.”
Both YES and the YAGO fund are supported through donations — which can be made by contacting the Community Foundation for Delta County. YES itself is also supported by fundraisers that take place throughout the year, including a golf outing in June, a year-round weekly raffle, and the upcoming Holiday Bash.
The Holiday Bash will take place on Dec. 7 from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Ruth Butler Building on the U.P. State Fairgrounds.
The 21-and-over event, which is catered by Wiles Food Service, features live music from Jam Band, holiday refreshments and raffles. Tickets are $45 each or $80 for a couple and may be purchased at www.yes906.org.