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by Anne Berleant
“I came from a small, tight-knit school,” said Keenan Eaton, president of the mentoring club at Maine Maritime Academy. “I always looked up to the bigger kids.”
Since last year, Eaton, a marine systems and engineering junior, is one of the bigger kids, as a mentor at the Castine elementary school.
“He comes during study hall and helps me with my homework,” said seventh-grader Drake Janes, who Eaton began mentoring last year. “Then, you can just hang out and talk about whatever.”
The mentoring club matches MMA and Adams School students in a Big Brother/Big Sister capacity for one-on-one time within the school or, occasionally, a public setting.
But the mentoring club offers some advantages that the Big Brother/Big Sister organization does not, said faculty advisor George Schatz, who chaired the advisory board of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Eastern Maine for two years until funding was cut in 2011.
To go through Big Brother/Big Sister, the cost per mentee is around $2,000, Schatz said, which includes paid staff to coordinate the program.
The MMA mentoring club is run completely by volunteers, and the MMA security office does all criminal background checks at no charge.
“Obviously by doing this on our own, we’ve saved money,” Schatz said.
When Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Eastern Maine lost funding, the program at MMA and Adams School was also lost.
“[MMA] President Brennan asked if I could set something else up,” said Schatz, who also served for several years on the board of Downeast Health Services.
More recently, Bangor United Way contacted Schatz about expanding the program to the Penobscot Community School, with some financial support from the Bangor charity.
“The program is still in its infancy,” said Eaton.
Last year, Schatz, working with Adams School principal Katie Frothingham and then-MMA athletic coach Katrina Dagan, started the mentoring club. Eaton was one of the first mentors and returned this year as club president. Currently, nine MMA students are mentors at Adams School (six in their second year), with another six either waiting for completion of background checks or Adams School parent permission.
The mentoring club is “trying to bridge a gap,” Eaton said. “We’re trying to be the [MMA] kids who are out in the community. Not causing a hassle.”
“It’s a big commitment for students,” said Eaton. “Some find out it’s not for them.”
“What we don’t want is to have some start being a mentor…and drop out,” said Schatz. “That can be devastating to a kid.”
Toward that end, Eaton doesn’t push his fellow students to join. “If people really want to do it, they find me.”
Once an MMA student decides to be a mentor, he or she is background checked and then meets with Frothingham, who makes a match with an interested Adams School student. Frothingham also requires written parental permission for an Adams School student to be assigned a mentor.
Background checks can take from two to five weeks, said Eaton.
Eaton, who also coaches the Adams School basketball team, meets with his mentee once a week, for an hour during study hall or to shoot baskets at the MMA gym.
“I try to support him as much as I can,” Eaton said.
Janes said that having a mentor is a positive experience. “Really, if you get comfortable with, and get to know him, you can talk about anything.”