A local nonprofit aims to keep kids in school and out of trouble.
A nonprofit organization that works with Texas school districts to mentor children and teens has now formed a partnership with the Ellis County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program, and it needs you to volunteer as a mentor.
Keeping students at risk of expulsion and altogether failing high school in a classroom setting so that they can get a basic diploma, J.J.A.E.P. is the county-run last resort for many teens who end up involved in the juvenile justice system. Midlothian-based Mentors Care has contracted with the county to give the teens in the program adult mentors who will commit to once-a-week meetings with them and guide them along in their rehabilitation.
“These are going to be the kids that are truly at risk of going to the juvenile system or to prison, so we’re excited about the opportunity,” says Dena Petty, founder of Mentors Care.
Starting in 2022, mentors who’ve been vetted and trained by the organization will be paired up with program participants from middle school age up to high school seniors, offering them audience for their concerns, holding them accountable for their grades and altogether modeling responsible behavior for them while they’re in J.J.A.E.P. and ultimately helping them to return to school, reformed and ready to resume the process of becoming successful adults.
The county’s alternative education program will have a total of 50 seats available to which local school districts may send expelled students. Petty says her goal is to have a mentor for each student, therefore she’s looking for new volunteers to get started right away.
Mentors Care has worked with several local school districts, including Midlothian, Ferris, Maypearl, Palmer and Red Oak. The organization got its start in 2009 at Midlothian High School where Petty, a former youth pastor, was asked to work with so-called at-risk youth and design a mentoring program. In 2011, she spun her work out into a nonprofit organization and took its mission to nine more schools.
Petty says that the arrangement with J.J.A.E.P. will require volunteers who are “more seasoned” than those who volunteer at the schools, but everyone is invited to apply to become a mentor. The organization prepares volunteers for their work, and sessions at the schools and at J.J.A.E.P. will have a supervisor who can offer assistance with any matter that crops up outside of the volunteers’ experience.
“We have a coordinator that’s right there to hold your hand. So, if you hear of a major outcry, or something going on with the kid, we’re not asking you to do anything about that. You’re just a friend — you bring that information to the coordinator, and we handle all that,” she says.
Mentors Care volunteer Patricia Christiansen has worked with two students over the course of three years at Red Oak High School, and she says the work of a mentor is within the skill set of every caring person.
“It’s really just being a friend to these people and being someone they can talk to that maybe is disassociated with their life — somebody that’s not connected to them that they can just feel like they can talk freely to and share with,” she says. “I get so much more out of it than what it takes me to put in — just to know that I can be making a difference in someone’s — it’s very rewarding.”
Petty says her work with teens who’re falling through the cracks is a matter of giving something to others that she needed in her life. A homeless teen who lived in a car after leaving her criminal father and unavailable mother at the age of 16, she says she looks back and sees how she could have been greatly benefited by a caring influence in her life at the time.
“I was so weird in school, but I was weird for a reason,” she says. “I would have given anything if somebody would have just talked to me and found out what was going on because it was so painful, so hard. And the sad thing is, the hallways are just full of kids just like that. And that’s only worse nowadays.”