Nick Ahlgren and Rebecca Potter speak about their experience in the peer mentor program at the Brattleboro Union High School.(Zachary P.
Nick Ahlgren and Rebecca Potter speak about their experience in the peer mentor program at the Brattleboro Union High School. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Saturday February 16, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Eleanor Boyle and Emma Davis began meeting late last year as "mentor" and "mentee."

Just a few months later, they're more apt to use the word "friends."

"Emma surprises me a lot and makes me laugh a lot," said Boyle, a senior at Brattleboro Union High School. "She sort of opens my eyes to different ways of looking at things."

Davis, a sophomore, puts it this way: "We love hanging out together."

They are one example of a relatively new program that matches BUHS students who need peer mentoring with students who are willing to spend some time talking, participating in activities or just -- as Davis says -- hanging out.

Administrators at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Windham County say the program has been a success, and they're hoping it doubles in size by later this year.

"I'm really proud of these kids for stepping up and doing this," said Rob Szpila, Big Brothers Big Sisters program director.

Big Brothers Big Sisters, operated by Youth Services, already had been offering mentoring opportunities that pair adults with kids or high-school students with elementary-aged pupils.

Last year, though, high school staff saw a need for a better support network among students, Szpila said. With funding assistance from the Thomas Thompson Trust, United Way of Windham County and the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council, a pilot program was born.


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The initiative can assist students who have developmental disabilities including autism and Down syndrome, organizers said. But it's also geared more broadly toward kids who simply need more social interaction, said Kathy Herrin, a speech-language pathologist at BUHS.

"Generally, what we're looking at is kids who need a lot more social activity going on," Herrin said.

She added that there are clear, quantifiable benefits for pairing kids with someone close to their own age.

"When they're learning from their peers, they pick it up a lot easier," Herrin said.

Program administrators conduct training and interviews, and they look for signs of compatibility and common interests between potential mentors and mentees.

Mentor Rebecca Potter's match with Nick Ahlgren is an example of a pairing that has worked well.

"We hit it off really quickly. Nick's a really funny guy," said Potter, a BUHS senior.

Ahlgren, a sophomore, said he's found a good friend and appreciates "knowing that you've got someone to talk to."

While the program has some structure, mentors and mentees are encouraged to come up with activities that suit them. Potter and Ahlgren have planned outings including movies and a bike ride.

Boyle and Davis saw "Les Miserables" and have hung out in downtown Brattleboro.

"Last week, we did some water-color painting and hot-chocolate drinking," Boyle said.

Senior Tilden Remerleitch took cooking classes at the Brattleboro Food Co-op with her mentee, Keegan Isham. They've also hung out at the library or a bookstore, and they've stopped by Sam's Outdoor Outfitters for some of the store's free popcorn.

"I've really appreciated my time with Keegan," Remerleitch said. "We have a Monday routine."

Parents of mentees say they've noticed positive changes even in the early stages of the program. Ahlgren's mother, Carol McManus, said Nick's time with Potter has helped him overcome shyness.

Students speak about their experiences as mentors and mentees in the peer mentor program at the Brattleboro Union High School.(Zachary P.
Students speak about their experiences as mentors and mentees in the peer mentor program at the Brattleboro Union High School. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)

"I just feel incredibly blessed for the program," McManus said. "It has enriched his life in so many ways."

Robin Davis said the program has been "wonderfully beneficial" for her daughter.

"She doesn't have a lot of contacts at school. She doesn't have a lot of friends she can call," Davis said. "There are a lot of adults in Emma's life and not enough peers in Emma's life."

Davis said she's hoping the matches aren't simply a "one-way relationship."

"I would like the mentor to feel that they're learning and growing because of their mentee, too," she said.

That appears to be happening: Senior mentors who sat down to talk about the program recently in a BUHS classroom each said they have grown because of the experience.

"It's a chance to get a new perspective on things," Remerleitch said.

They also offered advice to classmates who might be thinking of getting involved.

"I think the only things you need are open-mindedness, patience and flexibility," Boyle said.

Added Potter: "If you are the kind of person who wants to be in the program, you're the kind of person who should be."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.