Mentoring military children: Program creates new link
By John Joyce
Published in News on December 29, 2013 1:50 AM
Wesley Tilley, 18, and Tiffany Stathkis, 17, learn how to use a website for logging volunteer hours during mentor training for Operation LINK at Greenwood Middle School.
YaSheeka Sutton, 27, listens to a presentation during mentor training for Operation LINK at Greenwood Middle School.
A $2.35 million federal grant obtained by East Carolina University is bringing to Wayne County a unique pilot program geared toward building connections between military families, the community and schools.
Operation LINK is a new AmeriCorps mentoring program that will link 174 mentors with students of military families in Wayne County Public Schools. The program is open to non-military students as well.
The schools participating in the program's rollout are Greenwood Middle, Tommy's Road Elementary, Wayne School of Engineering and the Seymour Johnson Youth Center on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
The program will focus mainly on the sciences, bringing the world of virtual robotics into the classroom and allowing deployed military parents, using Operation LINK laptops, the opportunity to sit in on their child's class from half-way around the world.
Operation LINK is the concept of Dr. Betty Beacham and her ECU staff.
"We've had AmeriCorps programs here at ECU for 14 years," Ms. Beacham said.
She is the program's executive director.
The most recent AmeriCorps program recently came to the end of its funding at ECU and it was time for something new.
"My staff and I wanted to look at the needs of military families, specifically the kids in schools. We found there was a 'perfect storm' of needs," Ms. Beacham said.
Military members routinely deploy to foreign countries and areas around the world, leaving behind their spouses and children, and those spouses often work to help support the family, leaving their children in a position unique to military families -- relying on the support of the base, the schools and the communities.
"We wanted to focus on a particular group -- grades four through eight -- which seems to be one of the most difficult age (groups) for any child, with additional complexities added by the stressors on their lives being military kids," she said.
The funding comes from the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the N.C. Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service.
Both are highly sought after grant sources, the application processes for which are very competitive.
To make the program more exceptional, ECU professor and Operation LINK Education Coordinator Dr. Michael Dermody introduced an idea that further cemented the programs chances of getting funded -- robotics.
In addition to tutoring and mentoring Wayne County students, the AmeriCorps volunteers will be assisting the children in constructing virtual robots online through the Carnegie-Mellon Robotics program.
"In June, at a summer robotics camp the groups will build actual robots," Ms. Beacham said.
Operation LINK is a pilot program, meaning if it meets with success in Wayne County it will expand to surrounding counties and potentially the state -- possibly the nation.
Lou Rose, a former elementary school assistant principal and current Wayne County Public Schools administrator is serving as the program director in the field for Operation LINK.
She is a Department of Defense Education Activity grant director and the former instructional liaison at Wayne School of Engineering, one of Operation LINK's target schools.
"I worked all summer with Dr. Beacham and Military Affairs Counselor Jamie Livengood developing the program," Ms. Rose said.
Initially intended to encompass Craven, Cumberland, Onslow and Wayne County, by the end of the summer Wayne was the only county willing and able to pilot the program.
"We recruited volunteers from Wayne Community College, Wayne School of Engineering, Communities in Schools. The principals in each of the schools and the student government associations were crucial in getting the word out," she said.
Operation LINK will have 24 full time and 150 minimum-time mentors.
Each full-time member will provide 900 hours of mentoring and community service in a 12-month period, earning $500 for living expenses and a $2,775 Segal AmeriCorps Education Award -- a scholarship that can be used by the volunteer or transferred to a family member.
The minimum-time members, of which there are several slots still needing to be filled, will earn a $1,175 Segal award.
Since September, the 24 full-timers, comprised of college students, Wayne School of Engineering students, young professionals, a retired teacher, a former U.S. Airways pilot and a Wayne County Teen Court advisor, have been training to become AmeriCorps mentors.
"They've been working on relationship building, developing curriculum, working at community service projects and coming together as a team," Ms. Rose said.
The mentors have also become CPR certified and taken first-aid training.
Operation LINK seeks to focus on critical thinking, teamwork, 21st century learning skills, collaboration and organization skills, as well as communications and conflict resolution.
Technology, too, will play a significant role, not just in the form of building robots, but in the strengthening of the family-student connections, Ms. Rose said.
"We're going to issue laptops to some of the parents who are deploying," she said.
Both Ms. Rose and Ms. Beacham said they were particularly enthusiastic about this aspect of the program.
"This will give the parents a unique opportunity to stay connected with their children, the students while they are in school," Ms. Rose said.
Ms. Beacham said not only will the parents be able to log in an join in the robot-building process with their child's team, but will be given the chance to be involved in their child's education.
"More than just asking if they did their homework and are being good at home, the (deployed) parents will be working, virtually, side-by-side with the students," Dr. Beacham said.
The sustained connection via the laptops will also serve to ease the deployed parent's transition back into the family when they finally come home, she said.
Ethan Taylor, 21, is an electronics engineering student at Wayne Community College. As a member of Operation LINK he is looking forward to having a positive impact on the lives of kids in his community. His field of study will come in handy when the robotics aspect of the program kicks into gear.
"I taught myself most of what I know, one of my first projects was building a robot out of two remote control cars," he said.
He was 13.
Taylor, who has become the group's de facto technical adviser, also has been tasked with creating a website for Operation LINK in Wayne County, hoping to attract more attention to the group and expand its potential impact.
Retired Wayne County Public Schools teacher Jane Mull also is a new AmeriCorps volunteer. She taught at Greenwood and other schools for more than 25 years, and is looking forward to a new type of teaching.
"It's not just tutoring, but a mesh of mentoring and developing a family-like camaraderie. It isn't just the teacher-student interaction," she said.
The training has been long and will continue throughout the program. The volunteers will meet Fridays for additional training, to plan curriculum and to develop community service projects they will do with their mentees and the family members of the children.
It is a lot of work that promises to be rewarding.
Wesley Tilley, a fifth-year senior at Wayne School of Engineering, jokes that the reward was what prompted him to sign up.
But while Tilley feigns a nonchalance and self-serving attitude, like the rest of the group, he is there first and foremost to give back.
"I love working with kids. I've got over 100 hours of community service time logged with the Boys and Girls Club over the last two years," he said.
Tia Green, 17, is scheduled to graduate from Goldsboro High School in 2014. She's given back at community blood drives, the O'Berry Center, the Boys and Girls Club.
She said she jumped at the chance when her school's guidance counselor sent the email out to seniors about Operation LINK.
"I'm looking to gain social skills, interacting with the younger kids, learning patience and flexibility," she said.
All of the volunteers were vigorously vetted through background checks, fingerprints and a lengthy interview process.
Lou Rose personally screened each of them to see not only what they could bring to the program, but what they could take from it that might serve them in the future.
"It all goes back to building those connections, networking, learning to be a team," she said.
The mentors were placed in the school earlier this month, just before classes broke for the holidays in order to give them time to get oriented so they could hit the ground running when classes resume.
The program coordinators have had to be flexible with certain deadlines and taken steps to avoid what obstacles they could foresee in implementing the program so far.
"Each step is evaluated, but we have to be realistic. When writing a grant there are a lot of high expectations, but ethics and credibility are chief so the process will move at the right pace," Ms. Rose said.
Credibility is also what is going to count with the kids, so the attention detail and making sure nothing is overlooked will be paramount.
"Snacks. One of the biggest needs is snacks for the kids for after school," she said.
Transportation also is one of the things federal grants do not supply for, so the program will rely on the parents and schools there, she said.
"But anybody that wants to donate snacks, we have a need for that. We're going to have some hungry kids in the afternoon."