By Danielle LeBlanc, Staff Writer
While sitting in the back of the Dairy Bar, Bruce Montville talked passionately about a program that he has fathered, nurtured and has truly come to love. Ten years ago, Montville founded the Wildcat Youth Mentors program here at the University of New Hampshire.
Wildcat Youth Mentors is a volunteer program where UNH students go to middle schools and high schools around the area to mentor at-risk youth.
“We do a lot of listening,” Montville said. “And the listening is so effective it’s considered therapeutic listening because it allows the youngsters to get things that are on their mind off their chest.”
It all started during another UNH program that Montville runs, called the Water Guardians. According to Montville, Water Guardians is also made up of student volunteers who go into schools and deliver education on clean drinking water and drinking solutions.
“I kept noticing youngsters that were hanging back, that weren’t raising their hands,” Montville said. “I just kept noticing the same thing in every school we went to in every class.”
Montville decided to inquire about what he had been noticing. The answer he got was shocking. According to Montville there was something “not happening right for them.” These kids came from dysfunctional homes where most of their families didn’t know or didn’t care about their kids’ education or social troubles.
“I’m the type of guy who thinks, ‘how can you know that and leave it alone?’” Montville said.
From that kernel of compassion was born the Wildcat Youth Mentors. The program is designed to help these kids gain social and personal confidence that they lack, Montville said. The mentors form trusting friendships with the mentees and provide listening and encouragement.
“To the youngsters these students are heroes,” Montville said.
According to Montville the volunteers and their mentees meet for one hour once a week during school.
There are currently 12 schools in and around the area that are involved with the Wildcat Youth Mentors program. However, Montville said he is hoping to expand and is currently in the processes of doing so.
According to Montville, in order to expand the program needs to become an official organization here at UNH. Helping in to do that is Tau Kappa Epsilon, a fraternity here at UNH.
For the past two years, TKE has been volunteering and is now determined to help Montville to expand and become an official organization.
Among the many male volunteers in TKE is Alex Sullivan, soon to be vice president of the Wildcat Youth Mentors once it is approved.
“Now that we’re trying to set up the organization as a UNH-based organization, we’re in the final stages of it,” Sullivan said.
According to Sullivan, Montville wants to expand very quickly and has been talking to other schools and trying to get more involved in order to help as many kids as they can.
“It’s incredible how the children are helped,” Sullivan said. “They’ll open up a little more and you get to bond with one another … and then the other kids think this kid has a really cool friend who’s in college and suddenly they’re popular.”
According to Montville, there is an average of 100 volunteers a year, all committed and dedicated to helping their mentees. Montville could even recall a few incidents where these volunteers went above and beyond for their mentees.
Montville said that one year there was a female mentor who had a mentee that really wanted to be on the cheerleading squad. However, the mentee was tall, lanky and very uncoordinated; the idea was very unrealistic.
“However, the mentor happened to have been on the cheerleading squad back in high school,” Montville said. “She went back to her school and got a cheerleading routine tape that they practiced with when she was a cheerleader.”
The two girls practiced together until the mentor felt that the mentee had truly improved.
Four weeks later, the mentor brought the young girl’s cheerleading coach in from school and did the routine for the coach. Halfway through the routine, the coach stopped the girls and told the mentee she was on the team.
“That would never have happened without the mentor,” Montville said. “That little girl would never have dreamed of trying out for the team if it wasn’t for the mentor.”
Montville also shared another similar story about a mentee who didn’t want to go to a spring dance because she didn’t think that she had anything nice to wear. The mentor ended up making the young girl a dress and a matching hat to wear to the dance.
Sullivan agreed that acts such as these were not uncommon for the program.
“There was this boy last year that was in his school play,” Sullivan said. “His family had no idea that he was even in the play.”
According to Sullivan, the mentor showed up to the boy’s play that weekend without any warning. The mentee was so happy that he gave the mentor a big embrace after the play.
There is a reason for this kind of dedication and compassion from the volunteers, Montville said. All volunteers undergo an orientation and training before even meeting their mentees.
This orientation and training includes a background check, a character check and an interview with the guidance counselor from each school to assess which volunteer would work best with each mentee.
“They’ve got to have compassion and commitment,” Montville said. “But most of all compassion, because that’s what it’s all about.”