Getting Involved with United Way, VISTAs and iC.A.R.E.
by Lia Pietrolungo
This summer marks the one year anniversary of United Way of Summit County housing iC.A.R.E. Mentoring (Creating Authentic Relational Energy) under its community impact program umbrella.
Although it may seem like iC.A.R.E. is an overnight success, it was created six years ago by Jonathan and Jessica Greer, who took the first steps by writing curriculum and creating lesson plans for their program. One year later, the Greers launched the iC.A.R.E. mentoring program’s predecessor. Then in 2013, the iC.A.R.E. mentoring program emerged as a small nonprofit.
Through their community work, activism and dedication to upholding their promises come what may, the Greers earned the trust of the Akron Public School system. Now, as the Director of iC.A.R.E. mentoring at United Way, Jonathan continues to work on expanding, developing and nurturing the program.
Seth Kujat, Vice President of Community Impact at United Way and iC.A.R.E. mentor, was excited to welcome the program into the UW family.
“We saw a lot of potential in the program a year ago when we started to have the conversation with iC.A.R.E.,” said Kujat. “We have a pool of children who are seeking a mentor and we have a pool of adults in our community who are trying to get connected. We have these two buckets of energy—how do we pull this together?”
With the help of community members, the Akron Public School System and VISTA volunteers, the iC.A.R.E. mentoring program has grown into a sturdy, successful community impact model that focuses on providing at-risk students with supportive role models in a one-on-one safe space. Working within grades K-12, the program helps students face the challenges that come with childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. When the students enter into a new grade level, the mentor travels with the student to the new building to continue their sessions.
iC.A.R.E.’s mentoring program is not a one-size-fits-all model, says Kujat. “Although it’s relatively intentional in the matching process, it’s really designed to just do whatever it is the mentee and mentor feel is needed at that session.” The program has developed an app for easy access the iC.A.R.E. portal full of prompts, ideas and directions for sessions, as well as a log to track progress.
United Way is also hiring eight new AmeriCorps VISTAs, five of which will be working with iC.A.R.E. With a focus on aiding nonprofit organizations across the United States, the VISTAS, or AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America, are placed in local programs full-time for one year where they work to fight poverty and help programs thrive and expand. The VISTA program partners with schools, public agencies, colleges and universities, and nonprofit organizations.
Working through United Way in the Akron Public School system, VISTA volunteers Grace Cochran and Peter Patterson are cluster coordinators for the iC.A.R.E. program. “It’s our job to facilitate the mentor-mentee relationship,” explains Patterson, who also worked as an iC.A.R.E. mentor. To Patterson, mentoring is not the equivalent of a friendship: “It’s the second adult. Being present is probably more important than anything [a mentor] says. Just being there so there’s some stability that happens.”
Amidst the many components that keep iC.A.R.E. running seamlessly, the most important piece is the relationship between the mentors and mentees. Randy Culver, retiree and mentor for iC.A.R.E., has been mentoring Ka’Andre, a middle school student, for nearly two years.
“I think I’ve grown from him,” says Randy Culver of Ka’Andre, “I think he’s taught me to be a little more patient.”
For Ka’Andre, his sessions with Culver feel more like “hanging out,” where they’ll sometimes do school work, talk about a problem that he is facing or play chess. Together they work on problem-solving and strategies to help Ka’Andre through adolescence and into young adulthood.
As a parent himself, Culver understands the importance of consistency and being present with youth. While mentors are only required to meet with mentees once per week, per Ka’Andre’s request, the pair meet twice per week. Regardless of any schedule conflicts, Culver is dedicated to his role as Ka’Andre’s mentor: “I’m coming twice a week unless school is closed. Those are given. I want to be there for him [and] be that presence.”
Currently, iC.A.R.E. offers family enrichment sessions four times per year and is in the process of redeveloping their curriculum to best serve all parties involved in the program including parents, who are highly encouraged to work alongside mentors. The aim is to engage parents in the mentoring process at home to garner the best chances of the student’s success. When it comes to getting parents more involved, Greer says that he and the iC.A.R.E. team “will be doing a lot more intentional work this coming school year to support families with needed resources and direction to help them as we serve their children.”
As of this year, there are 420 mentor/mentee pairs with 600 students having signed up through the iC.A.R.E. program between Akron Public Schools and Barberton City Schools.
“Any child who wants/needs a mentor has the right to one and we work hard to make that happen,” says Jonathan Greer. “In short, no matter what the challenge for the student, we want to support them.”
United Way has already begun recruiting for the new VISTA openings, with applications due by May 13. The starting date for all eight positions is June 27. Prospective applicants can learn more on the United Way website at uwsummit.org/vista.