Algoma high schoolers mentor young students in Wolf Den, Wolves and Pups programs
ALGOMA – The hubbub of elementary school-age children mostly quieted, some with mouths agape, as Jane Button sat in a circle among them on a late Tuesday afternoon and held out a large, purplish rock.
"Do any of you know what this is?" Button asked.
"It's amethyst," answered a young girl's voice.
"That's right," Button said, before handing the rock to the girl to her left and having her start passing it around the circle for a quick show-and-tell session. She explained how she learned about amethyst and why it's her favorite gemstone. Button also wore some amethyst jewelry she showed the children.
Then, the children, a handful of high school students and adults, and the woman the kids call "Grandma Button" moved to the cafeteria tables in Algoma Elementary School. Some students put out place settings, and Button dished up the simple dinner she made and brought for the gathering.
It's part of an effort spearheaded by an Algoma High School student, with a lot of help from her peers and community members, to support Algoma's elementary and middle school students.
Senior Abigail Robinson founded a one-on-one mentoring program that started last school year, matching high school "Wolves" — Algoma's school mascot — as mentors to "Pups" in the younger schools who may need help figuring out their life skills and how to use them.
About a year ago, the project added the "Wolf Den," where mentors and Pups gather in groups after school and have dinner together. The dinners are made by businesses, school classes or community members such as Button.
It also started a Weekend Backpack Program to provide some of the Pups with a breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for the weekend packed by Algoma United Methodist Church members.
It all started because of a sophomore-year class project of Robinson's. She created a survey to assess the social and emotional wellness of Algoma Middle School students as part of her project, and the responses led her to decide she wanted to help the students. How to help was the question.
"I always had a passion for kids, helping others," Robinson said. "I wanted to do something more, but I wasn't sure what it was,"
Robinson told her counselor, Teal VanLanen, she wanted to become a mentor or start a mentoring program for some of the younger students. As it turned out, VanLanen, the district's community activator and wellness coordinator, told her the district was discussing a mentoring program but lacked manpower and resources.
So, with guidance and encouragement from VanLanen, Robinson began putting together the program.
"She helped me a lot with making connections, getting resources to build a sustainable program," Robinson said of VanLanen.
"Abigail really stepped up," VanLanen said. "She had a vision of this project. She created a vision of what this could be."
Robinson's efforts took shape with the one-on-one Wolves/Pups mentoring. Potential Pups were identified through SAEBRS testing — Social, Academic and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener — and services they already were receiving from the school district. High school students volunteered to meet with a Pup for a half-hour at least twice a week.
"Some kids maybe are having internal struggles, maybe struggles with their peers, maybe they don't have the best supports in place," Robinson said. "That's our most fundamental goal, providing that support."
"The high schoolers go to the elementary school and meet the Pups in the classroom, the lunch room, wherever. They go to the library, the commons, just to talk to the Pup about how their day is, provide guidance, sometimes they do an activity.
"It's great — what kid wouldn't want to have a high schooler talking to them?"
The first year, 27 Wolves mentored 27 Pups. This year, 38 Wolves and Pups are taking part.
The Wolf Den program began in the past year has the Wolves, Pups, school staff and community volunteers meet together after school. The Pups are given a life skill to learn and work on, ranging from hygiene to positive mindsets.
"(Then) we break into groups and try to work on social and emotional well-being so they can be better leaders in school," Robinson said. "At the end, we have community members or one of the high schoolers bring in dinner. The whole program started after the mentoring program, when we realized we could do a lot more for these kids."
The Wolf Den dinners and backpack program not only help Pups with nutrition, but also provide opportunities for them to have positive interactions with adults.
"It's a great way for the kids to meet community members and for the community members to get to meet the kids," Robinson said. "Building a sense of community, that's been one of the best parts."
"They need adult interaction with people who are not out to hurt them or take advantage of them," Button said.
"One of the things we know about well-being is the need to be connected to the community," VanLanen said.
The growth and results of the programs have gone "way beyond expectations," VanLanen said. She said she thinks it helps the younger students to have older students, who were the younger ones not so long ago, as a sounding board for their thoughts.
"Sometimes adults have just one lens of focus," VanLanen said. "We really should be asking youths what they want."
Robinson also said she's seen positive changes in the Pups, and the Pups enjoy the changes they get from the programs.
"I've seen so much growth in these students," Robinson said, "just by them thinking about things before they speak, thinking about feelings, how their actions impact other people. There's been so much growth in one year — it's crazy."
"It helped me get more friends," one Pup said. "Here is a place to be happy."
"I like it because when I'm here, we have fun together," said Dylan Spence Anderson, a Pup whose parents, Natasha and Thomas Anderson, volunteer as a "Wolf Mother" and "Wolf Father" for the Den. "It helps me calm down when I'm angry."
Plus, Robinson and some other Wolves said they have experienced changes themselves since they started working with the Pups.
"Personally, I've seen a lot of change in the way I view myself and others," Robinson said. "I feel my empathy has increased very much; I've become a much more grateful person."
"For the Pups, we just want to give support emotionally, be there for them," Sophomore Paige Panger said. "It's just so fulfilling. It really helped me value other people."
"It make me feel good inside, feel renewed," senior David Garrels said. "If not for doing this, I'd just be sitting at home, doing nothing. It gives me a feeling I couldn't get just sitting around with my friends. It give me a sense of purpose."
Garrels said became interested in the program after talking with one of the other Wolves, Elizabeth Jerome, and realizing he could relate to some of the situations they're in.
"I think it's just a really good thing," Garrels said. "I see a lot of myself in these children. I was in a lot of situations like them when I was younger."
Robinson is graduating this year, but the programs will carry on with junior Anna McClure and Panger taking charge. Robinson hopes the programs continue to grow in the coming years, in both student and community involvement.
"This year we had more and more high schoolers coming in. I hope some more are able to come to the after-school program, and more mentors so we can fulfill the needs," she said.
"I'd also like to see increased awareness of the program in the community. I'd like to see more people get involved in the program."
To volunteer or donate to the Wolf Den or Weekend Backpack programs in the Algoma schools, or for more information, call 920-487-7001, Ext. 4001, or email Abigail Robinson at [email protected] or Teal VanLanen at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Algoma high schoolers mentor young students in Wolf Den, Wolves and Pups programs