Mentors & Friends

Gorge Youth Mentoring perseveres through the COVID-19 pandemic

By Drew Myron

Gorge Youth Mentoring participants Khylie Garver, left, and Becky Brun connect through cooking. Photo by Jonathan Graca

Becky Brun and Khlylie Garver formed a friendship in the kitchen. Decades apart in age, the two slice, dice, stir, and share, making soup, stir-fry, sushi, and more.

“Khylie is very adventurous when it comes to food and she loves to cook, which is something I love, too,” Becky says.

Becky and Khylie, 12, met last fall through Gorge Youth Mentoring—a program pairing youth with volunteer mentors who offer guidance, support, and camaraderie.

Offered by The Next Door Inc., a nonprofit organization serving the Columbia Gorge, the program is free and available to ages 6 to 21. Youth and mentors come from communities throughout Hood River, Wasco and Klickitat counties. Many participants are from single-parent and low-income homes and benefit from a consistent, positive role model, says Kateel Muhs, program supervisor.

Mentors range from 21 to 80 years old. Applicants are thoroughly vetted through interviews, background checks, and trainings. Volunteers commit to meet at least two times a month, though many choose to meet or talk more often.

“Our mentors are really caring adults,” Kateel says. “They listen, are nonjudgmental, and offer endless encouragement. It’s so important to have a person outside your own family that can offer another perspective and support.”

Within just a few months, Khylie’s father noticed positive changes.

Gunnar Sacher, left, and Tsadik Addy forged a friendship through walks and talks. Photo by Gunnar Sachar

“She was shy at first, but now she loves it,” says Timothy Garver, a single parent to two girls. “The school recommended the program, and it’s been helpful. Her grades are up, and she enjoys spending time with Becky. It’s a great program.”

Gunnar Sacher could have written a check, but instead gives his time and attention.

“I often ask myself, ‘Can I do more than make a monetary donation?’” says the software engineer, who became a mentor to 12-year-old Tsadik Addy. “There is a tremendous need for connection as a community. Gorge Youth Mentoring provides a unique opportunity to build back community.”

Rather than expensive outings, matches are encouraged to do everyday things, such as walks, talks, and bike rides. Many enjoy hobbies together, such as cooking, hiking, or painting.

“You have to be ready to spend time and invest in the relationship,” Gunnar says. “It’s important to break out of routines and see new things and different views of life. I’ve learned that building a relationship asks for patience and trust. It takes time and patience. For me, spending time with him is a reminder that growing up is not easy.”

For some matches, the personalities click right away. Keith Whigham, 39, and Kaiydon Hatch, 16, share a zest for adventure. Matched eight years ago, they thrive on high-energy activities and enjoy climbing walls, windsurfing, and hiking.

Keith Whigham, left, and Kaiydon Hatch have bonded over outdoor adventures. Now 16, Kaiydon has known his mentor for more than half his life. Photo by Keith Whigham

“Being a role model to a child that is developing can be rather intense,” Keith says. “It’s been a pleasure to be a part of that growing process, for both of us. It’s an exceptional program, and it creates a lot of joy.”

Mentor relationships are needed now more than ever, notes David Shapiro, head of Mentor, a national organization advocating for youth.

Even for the most stable and healthy child, the pandemic has contributed to social isolation and feelings of hopelessness.

“The truth is, the responsibility of supporting young people’s well-being falls on all of us, regardless of what we do or where we live,” he says. “The mental health crisis, at its core, is a crisis of connection. Tutors and mentors are critical to boosting the academic, social, and emotional skills that are central to students’ success.”

Gorge Youth Mentoring is experiencing its own pandemic challenges. The program has 50 active matches, which is nearly half the pre-pandemic pairings.

Always in need of volunteers, the program typically maintains a long list of youngsters waiting for mentors.

The pandemic, however, has created a new dilemma: The program has more volunteers than youth. Remote learning, combined with strains on schools and staffing, may have weakened usually robust connections.

Becky Brun, left, and Khylie Garver, enjoy quiet times and connection. Photo by Jonathan Graca

“We work with schools and community groups who refer students to us,” Kateel says. “We typically get referrals from schools and have a waitlist of 20, but right now we have just six kids on the list.”

She encourages parents to contact Gorge Youth Mentoring directly to enroll their children in the program.

Health concerns also have changed meetups. Outdoor activities are now popular, with an emphasis on walks, hikes, swimming, paddleboarding, and even playing board games in the park.

Group activities have moved outdoors, with mentoring pairs gathering to carve pumpkins, make wreaths and enjoy other seasonal activities.

Some pairs have opted to replace or supplement visits with phone calls, video calls, and even snail mail, Kateel says.

“The pandemic has put a real strain on our program, but our matches have really persevered,” she says.

Get Involved

Do you have or know a child who would benefit from having a mentor? Would you like to be a mentor? To take part in Gorge Youth Mentoring, call Hood River County Match Coordinator Maria Diaz at (541) 490-9979 or email Maria.