Graduating from high school is one of the earliest and most important milestones to set us up for success in life. That goal, however, isn’t always easy or even attainable for every student. This is where TeamMates comes in; a program that believes caring adults mentoring school age children can make a big impact.
TeamMates was started in 1991 by Dr. Tom and Nancy Osborne, matching 22 University of Nebraska-Lincoln football players with Lincoln middle school students. Coach Osborne saw a need in his community, and thought the players could make an impact. Of the first class of students, 21 graduated high school, with 18 continuing on in post-secondary education. In 1998 it became a statewide program, and in 2018 spread into South Dakota. The Custer-Hermosa school district led the charge, with programs in Rapid City, Spearfish, and Sioux Falls following suit. Chapters are being developed in more communities throughout the hills, with some hoping to start taking applications in spring of 2021.
While it may seem similar to other youth mentoring programs, what sets TeamMates apart is its carefully structured approach. Jess Karim, the Regional Coordinator for TeamMates in South Dakota, notes that “The TeamMates Mentoring Program makes it possible for anyone to be successful in mentoring a young person, thus creating a positive impact in our community. When folks mentor with us, they join a team of experts who support them through training, feedback and advice when needed.” Mentees and mentors meet once a week during the academic year at school. They don’t exchange personal information or interact outside of this once-weekly visit, which allows both sides to engage and interact while still maintaining that boundary.
Inspiring Change Through Hope
Hope is a big deal in the TeamMates Mentoring Program. JC Joyce, a mentor with the Rapid City program, says the program focuses on strengths: “When you highlight what [mentees] are doing well and not what’s going wrong, that hope measurement really comes into play.” For the 2018-19 school year, 91% of mentees said they had a more hopeful outlook for their future than they did prior to participating.
Unfortunately, in-person meetings are on hold for now, but local programs are working hard to adapt and overcome. For now, mentors and mentees use a virtual web portal that allows them to meet, while their privacy is protected via TeamMates-assigned user names and passwords required for access. Connection is more important than ever, as over 90% of kids under the age of 18 report feeling lonely in their daily lives—and that was before the current pandemic.
Looking for Community Support
As with any volunteer-based program, TeamMates struggles to find enough adult mentors to meet the demand. Karim notes that people “might be interested, but the reason they don’t apply is they worry about being good enough.” Mentors in the program are trained prior to being matched, and they are not expected to be counselors or tutors. Volunteers just need to be caring adults who will show up and be a positive, reliable part of a child’s life. She encourages people to think about informal mentoring relationships in their own lives and what they’ve meant, and recognize that the most important thing in the program is just “showing up, caring, and being consistent.” Having time with their mentor is something that mentees have said makes a difference, with 85% of TeamMates mentees stating that having a mentor makes them excited to go to school.
A great resource for the program has been local businesses in Rapid City, such as Black Hills Energy and Scheels. Karim explained that having employers who are willing to support and encourage their employees to participate in TeamMates is huge for them. The time commitment is such that most working professionals can find time over their lunch hour once a week to participate, while some businesses even carve out time for their employees to participate during their day. Either way, the dedication of local volunteers is making a huge difference in the lives of our youth.
Paving the Way Forward
Currently, the Rapid City program is only taking nominations from students at North and South Middle Schools, with hopes to expand into more schools in the future. The program chose to start with middle school students after discussing the program with Rapid City Area Schools Superintendent Dr. Lori Simon, who hopes that mentor and mentee pairs can grow their relationship over several years. This not only lets matched pairs bond better, it adds an element of stability for students during some of their most challenging years in school.
Adults wanting to be a mentor for any local program can find an application on the official TeamMates website at TeamMates.org. Students at North and South Middle Schools interested in the TeamMates program should contact their school principals for program information and applications. Those in Spearfish and Custer Hermosa Districts can also ask their school administration, or check for contact information at TeamMates.org. School districts interested in implementing a TeamMates program can contact Jess Karim, the South Dakota Regional Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.