What does it take to change a life? One formula includes willing students, committed volunteer mentors and supportive administrators. Two years ago the Basilica entered into a new partnership called, “Hennepin Connections,” with our neighbor, Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). The premise was simple—pair one volunteer mentor with one MCTC student who had experienced homelessness or poverty.
Mentors were asked to provide support and encouragement to students to help them stay in school and graduate. In its initial year, nine volunteers participated. Students who completed the year received a $1,500 scholarship. The start-up was intentionally small in order to learn if this idea would work and what was needed by the volunteers and students for these relationships to be successful.
In year two, the goal was to grow to 15 students. This May, that goal was exceeded when 17 students and mentors completed Hennepin Connections—now “the buzz” at the college. Andrea Nelson is the Advancement Officer for the MCTC Foundation and recently attended the closing gathering for mentors and mentees. Describing a powerful goodness in the room, Andrea was struck by the volunteer mentors’ comments. “They expressed gratefulness for the friendships and relationships they had forged, and they talked about building a relationship with someone that they didn’t even know a year ago. How often do people of different experiences and different ethnic backgrounds come together and share deep and meaningful conversations?” The surprise for Andrea was that the mentors learned as much as their mentees.
The success of Hennepin Connections means more volunteer mentors are needed. Mentors commit for a school year from September to May, and training and support are provided. Current mentors said it’s important to view the role as a guide, someone who assists as an advisor, and good listening skills are a must.
A volunteer mentor since the start, parishioner Steve Kattke is a strong advocate who actively encourages others to get involved. He shared that it may be hard to understand the barriers students are working to overcome and stressed that a mentor makes a difference. Students struggle with issues like transportation, a place to sleep, or finances while working to achieve their educational goals.
Parishioner Marsha Carlson was a new mentor this year. Last fall, after continuing to hear that students still needed mentors, Marsha joined after the program had begun and jumped right in. Marsha said, “It was easy. At first, we met at MCTC which is across the street the Basilica, and that is how we got to know each other. After that, we would meet or talk on the phone about once a week to check in on how things were going.”
Marsha knew when her mentee had tests and knew when she was struggling. As a mentor, Marsha offered resources and emotional support, and she felt a real bond with her mentee. Over Christmas, Marsha was out of town but kept in touch with her mentee. Her mentee was surprised that Marsha kept calling even while traveling. After the program ended, Marsha learned what meant the most to her mentee was knowing someone besides her family and friends cared about how she was doing.
Serving as a mentor opened Marsha’s eyes to the realities of homelessness. She watched students struggling to achieve their educational goals, but they also worried about where they would sleep that night. Marsha described being a mentor as an amazing experience and definitely worth her time. She plans to serve as a mentor again next year.
Are you called to consider serving as a mentor with Hennepin Connections? This one-on-one ministry is life changing for everyone involved. To learn more, contact Janice Andersen, Director of Christian Life.