Seattle Nonprofit Helps Youth Find a Friend in a Mentor
Stefan Hauser has spent the past few years looking forward to high school graduation — but not for himself. He’s been anticipating that milestone for the nine students he has mentored, most of whom he’s known since they were in kindergarten.
Hauser, who has been a mentor for the Seattle chapter of Friends of the Children for 13 years, acknowledged the difficulties that come with keeping teenagers engaged with the nonprofit organization. Affectionately referring to his mentees as “my guys,” Hauser said those difficulties only increased with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My guys were in their junior and senior years during that time,” Hauser said. “If we didn’t have a strong relationship, that would’ve been a time where they just said, ‘Okay, I’m done,’ and not picked up the phone or hopped on these weird meetings with me.”
With the help of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, mentors like Hauser were able to support Seattle Public Schools mentees with both their academics and their overall wellbeing. The two became especially intertwined during the height of the pandemic, according to Courtney Huck, Grants Director for the Seattle chapter of Friends of the Children.
“We wanted to have mentors support youth in social-emotional skills so that they could be more successful in school,” Huck said.
To provide this support, mentors worked with students on issues including anxiety and self-esteem, as well as held weekly virtual activities to connect with both students and their families. Hauser also used creative methods like reaching out to his students in video games. After connecting with them in an online chat, he was better able to encourage them to log in for a virtual meeting to talk or study, either one-on-one or as a group.
“Some of them didn’t really realize how much they missed being around other people,” Hauser said. “When they actually did show up, they had a lot to say. It was good to see them interacting with each other in that way.”
As a last resort, Hauser would reach out to a mentee’s family if he hadn’t been able to connect with him.
“I was like, I’m not going to let anybody slip through any cracks here,” Hauser said.
Friends of the Children’s approach to mentoring helps prevent this from happening. The organization selects children to serve when they’re in kindergarten or first grade, and continues serving them until they’ve either graduated from high school or acquired their high school equivalency credential.
Alicia Uehling, Senior Director of Programs for the Seattle chapter of Friends of the Children, said the process for selecting potential mentees is lengthy and comprehensive. Along with partnering with Washington’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families, and Head Start programs, teams work with schools to observe students in the classroom and get additional information from school staff. Teams also evaluate a student’s risk factors — like challenges in their home environment — and protective factors — like high levels of engagement at school.
While it’s important for mentors to be able to build relationships with students, Uehling said that a student’s ability to connect with a mentor is also a significant consideration in the selection process.
“One of the biggest factors,” Uehling said, “is, can they have a personal relationship with another person? Can they connect with an adult?”
It’s possible, though not likely, for students to be paired with the same mentor over the course of the 12 years they spend with Friends of the Children. The organization shifted its programming some years ago, creating one group of mentors to serve students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and one group of mentors to serve students in sixth grade through high school completion. Hauser, who also works as a physical education teacher for students in sixth through eighth grades, just so happened to join the teen mentor team at the same time that six of his mentees did too.
Throughout a student’s time with Friends of the Children, mentors work with students towards the long-term goals of completing high school, preventing involvement with the juvenile justice system, and waiting until after their teen years to become parents. Students also set their own goals and receive support from mentors to achieve them.
“We really work off the interest of the youth,” Huck said. “We’re listening to them and helping them with the steps to take to get them to the goals that they have in mind.”
That goal-oriented mindset came in handy when Hauser’s mentees entered high school. Many of his students had a hard time relating to what was taught in class, so Hauser encouraged them to focus on “not specifically what you’re learning in that class … it’s more so the skills that you’re building and how this relates to real-life situations for you.”
Even with all the challenges facing them, all of Hauser’s mentees graduated. And that doesn’t mean that their relationships are over.
“At a certain point, it becomes, Stefan is like a big brother, it’s not a situation where this is somebody that’s just hounding or harassing me to do work,” Hauser said. “It becomes more than just a mentor. You become family.”
This is the final story in a four-part series that features community-based organizations across Washington and the projects and programs they have been able to implement with support from federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief and American Rescue Plan funds.