Cuts to Youth Friends staffing alter the program

The district has cut the position of Youth Friends coordinator due to lack of district funding, after three years and 600 volunteers.

Started with the help of a grant from the Kauffman Foundation, a chapter of the program began in 2007. Renee Hultgren was hired as district coordinator of the program and, according to Youth Friends Central, the central office of the program, it was the fastest growing chapter in the Kansas City area.

“The program is designed to provide caring adult mentors for students, so the district coordinator reaches out to the community to find caring adults to connect with students,” Hultgren said.

In total, $4 million in cuts have been made within the district since March 2009. Without continued funding of the grant, which ended this year, staffing of the Youth Friends program, notably Hultgren’s position, was cut.

District director of administrator service and community relations Alvie Cater says the district did not anticipate the current state of the program.

“When we launched Youth Friends, we didn’t know this would happen,” Cater said. “You hope to have the resources available to absorb this funding, but we didn’t.”

Under normal circumstances, without the coordinator position, a chapter of the program could not exist, but Youth Friends Central has allowed the district to continue the program without a coordinator this year.

School counselors have been asked to facilitate the program and coordinate individual adults coming to mentor students at their specific schools.

“If you don’t set it up yourself, the program is gone,” Youth Friend volunteer and former teacher Gail Berman said.

Berman, who has a Youth Friend at Mill Creek Middle School and has been meeting with sophomore Abi Stoner since her freshman year, set up meetings with Stoner again on her own.

In years past, Hultgren would have actively contacted her and tracked her progress. With counselors coordinating the program this year, there is concern less attention will be given to coordinating the program.

“Counselors already have so much on their plate it will be hard for them to keep the program running and the most important part of my job was providing customer service to volunteers,” Hultgren said.

Community service teacher Cory Wurtz who worked with Hultgren in the past to get background checks and training by Hultgren for his students, now trains students himself.

“Some people are calling it ‘youth buddies,’” Wurtz said. “It’s a federally funded program and our grant has run out. We call it Youth Friends because that’s what we are familiar with. I call them mentors.”

The number of students Wurtz has serving as mentors remains around 40, about what it was last year. However, more students work in a classroom to tutor students, rather than a one-to-one relationship between one mentor and one student.

“It is not as effective,” Wurtz said. “It’s definitely not as close of a relationship as the Youth Friends program provides; it used to provide something other than school assistance.”

Out of nine of the adult mentors who came to Mill Valley last year, all have returned to mentor.

Stoner remains one of the students set up with a mentor.

“I really like it because I get someone else I can talk to and I know she’s always there for me,” Stoner said.

The story has not been the same at all schools in the district. In a general e-mail inquiry, Starside Elementary counselor Paula Henderson said out of 15 adult volunteers from last year, only one returned.

At Lexington Trails Middle School, 28 adult volunteers and no student volunteers have returned compared to 38 adult volunteers and 5 student volunteers from last year.

“Now our Youth Friend program will not continue to grow,” LTMS counselor Angie Russell said via e-mail. “Our staff cares for our students but cannot always fit the one-on-one extra time into their busy daily schedules.”

The district does not take cuts to the program lightly. The priority of the district was to cut programs not directly affecting the classroom first.

“The first priority was to protect the classroom,” Cater said. “We looked at everything around the classroom to protect teaching jobs and direct resources to students.”

Unfortunately, without a coordinator, it will be difficult for the program to grow. Cater said 100 percent of the program volunteers were recruited by Hultgren. No new Youth Friends, with the exception of Wurtz’s student mentors and special coordination with Cater, will be able to join the program.

Hultgren was offered a para position with the district but was never formally asked to continue work with the Youth Friends program. The offer did not financially make sense for her.

“I miss seeing the kids change because of the adults I’ve matched with them,” Hultgren said. “It was just disappointing to have such a successful program and help so many kids and then say, ‘We don’t have the money.’ It would be different if we weren’t successful. There are so many more kids that still need [Youth Friends] and there’s no way for them to get them.”

It is not certain if the program will continue next year, as without funding for a coordinator position, the program cannot continue under the Youth Friends name and grow.

“I don’t think it will be a district program that will grow a lot,” Hultgren said. “Without a focus, I see it slowly getting smaller and smaller.”

In the meantime, Hultgren is job hunting and continues to meet with a Youth Friend who she mentored at Riverview Elementary and has followed to Monticello Trails Middle School. This week, they are playing Fantasy Football.

“I can’t give up on my kids,” Hultgren said. “Even though I’m not the coordinator, I believe in the program so I still want to give them my friendship.”

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