During the last school year, United Way’s Big Friend Little Friend program matched 17 mentors and 17 children in a pilot of the program at Stewart and Webster elementary schools. It was such a success, the program is being offered to all four of the Yankton’s public elementary schools this year. 

Yankton’s elementary in-school mentoring program turns out to be a win-win for both students and volunteers, and it’s growing.

The Big Friend Little Friend program (BFLF), organized by the United Way of Greater Yankton, is being offered at all four of Yankton’s public elementary schools this fall. To accommodate the program’s growth, organizers are seeking to double the number of mentors in the program.

Unlike the United Way’s Community Mentoring program, its BFLF is an in-school program geared toward elementary-age children.

BFLF was piloted at Stewart and Webster elementary schools last year with promising results.

“We surveyed parents and youth that were involved in the program and got great results,” said Tara Bartekoske, community impact director for United Way of Greater Yankton. “Everyone said that the program benefited children and youth, and we would like to see that continue.”

Building on last year, organizers hope to sign up 15 new mentors in time for the fall.

Of the 17 mentors from last year, all but one — who no longer lives in the area — have decided to stay in the program.

“We are always talking about how the program impacts youth, but our volunteers have told us that they have also seen rewards personally through the program,” Bartekoske said. “(They mention) their self-esteem in their ability to make a difference and they’re more productive at work and at home, which is a great and positive thing.”

The mentoring side of the program is geared toward people who work, and only requires a couple of hours each month.

“One of the biggest benefits and most attractive pieces to the in-school mentoring program is that we are only asking you to share two hours a month, and really that is two lunch hours,” Bartekoske said. “The schools have stated that with the age groups that we are looking to match with, 30-45 minutes of planned activity is really a perfect amount of time and is adequate.”

Mentors have time to drive to the school, hang out with their little friends and do a fun activity, and then get back to work within an hour, she said.

“BFLF is not a tutoring program. The purpose and the goal of the program are to develop that friendship,” Bartekoske said. “You get that by doing fun activities. So, each school has a tote available to mentors that is filled with cars, colors, arts and crafts and board games.”

Mentors can also use any amenity at the school that is available.

“They are going outside for walks on the playground; they are doing crafts together,” Bartekoske said. “We have mentors who like shooting basketballs or throwing the football around, but kids are also playing and learning card games.”

Another benefit last year’s mentors mentioned was the program’s flexibility. Through the schools, mentors were able to work out the best time for themselves and the students, Bartekoske said.

“When you think about it, it’s not a huge time commitment, but in two hours you can make a huge impact and make a positive change for youth in our community,” she said.

Once mentors are screened, the teachers refer children to the program. There is no waiting list and students are only asked about it once a mentor is approved and ready to meet them.

“This (policy) has been really successful and beneficial, the schools have told us,” Bartekoske said. “So, however many volunteers we get, we will find a student to be matched with them.”

Those interested in mentoring in the BFLF program can expect to wear lots of hats, she said.

“Most of us had someone that’s really important in our lives that have helped guide us through our career decisions, our school decisions, like a teacher or coach or other mentor,” Bartekoske said. “They are role models, they are our biggest cheerleaders, they maybe delegate things to us, they are our biggest advocates and are also our friends.”

A mentor:

• has care and respect for children

• is flexible and a good listener

• knows how to have a good time

• is fun and empathetic and understanding of youth needs

• looks out for solutions and opportunities for youth they mentor.

A good mentor is passionate about making a difference for youth in our community, she added.

Anyone interested in mentoring a child can go to for more information about the program and to sign up. Mentors must complete an application process and interview prior to being approved by United Way.

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