Mentors make difference in lives of students

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By Nancy Kennedy

Ever since time began, those with wisdom and experience shared it with the younger generation.

Today, mentors still play a valuable role in the lives of young people. Here in Citrus County, close to 300 adults volunteer their time to mentor local students, developing one-on-one relationships that last a school year or an entire school career.

Karen Setlowe is just one mentor who makes a difference in a student’s life.

“I’ve been a mentor for seven years in Citrus County, but I’ve mentored many young people over the years,” said the 69-year-old playwright and actress. “What’s exciting for me as a mentor — I can pass on all of the gifts I’ve received from people who have mentored me.”

Not simply a tutor, who helps students with specific skills, such as improving math grades, a mentor develops a personal relationship with a student with the purpose and goal of helping the student blossom and bloom and reach his or her full potential.

Setlowe has been with her student — identities, even gender, are kept confidential — for seven years, from the time the student was in kindergarten. The student is now in middle school.

In Citrus County, school mentors go through three hours of training — one hour for being a school volunteer and an extra two for mentoring.

All mentoring is done on school property during school hours, under school supervision.

Mentors and students are matched by such things as interests, academic or personal needs, strengths and age.

Setlowe said when she was first paired with her student it was just to help with reading skills. However, over the years she has realized how perfectly the two have been matched.

“As fate would have it, my student has developed into a writer, and recently ... is one of the few young writers in the country (who) has been asked to submit a (writing) sample to a major book publisher,” Setlowe said.

She said her student did not know anything about her career or background for several years, never having asked about it. But as it turned out, as the student progressed and showed an aptitude for writing, Setlowe has been able to share her insight and knowledge of publishing, even finding which, if any, publishers accept submissions from kids.

The program, which started in the early 1980s, “provides selected students the opportunity to work one-on-one with a caring adult who has agreed to develop a caring relationship with an at-risk student, help the student make wise choices, give advice, act as a role model, share information, and share career experiences, etc.,” said Terry Cates, mentor program facilitator. “Mentors have had a tremendous, positive impact on the lives of many of our students over the years.”

He added some mentors have worked with the same student for several consecutive years, such as Setlowe and her student.

Setlowe said she and her student have an agreement when or if the student feels it’s time to discontinue the relationship, that’s when she will say good bye.

She said in her case, it’s what’s best for the student and what the student needs.

“As a mentor, it’s not about pushing my values onto the student. It’s about encouraging the student to develop,” Setlowe said. “I think of the definition of ‘education’ and the Latin word ‘educare’ — to bring out that which is already there; to nurture the seeds that are already there.”

January is National Mentoring Month.

For information about mentoring a student in Citrus County, call Helen Pannelli, director of the volunteer/mentor program for the Citrus County School Board, at 352-726-1931, ext. 2233.

Chronicle reporter Nancy Kennedy can be reached at nkennedy@chronicleonline.com or 352-564-2927.