carnivalMentee Ty Arnold, a third grader, tries to win a prize as his mentor, Elizabeth Forsyth ’10, cheers him on.

There are elementary and middle school children in Walla Walla, Wash., who are noticeably better, now — have better attitudes in school, better attendance and are happier. And school officials say they can point to the reason.

Or rather the reasons: Whitman College students.

Every year, about 150 kids who school officials determine could benefit from one-on-one time with a mentor get weekly visits at their schools from Whitman student mentors.

One day a year, the kids do the traveling. They come to Whitman for the much-anticipated annual Mentees to Campus Day carnival — which happened today — a chance to have fun and bond more with their mentors.

At this year's event, a fifth-grader explained what his mentor, Alex Miller ’10, meant to him.

He said when things are “going downhill” in his life he reminds himself that Wednesday will  come — the day Alex visits.

“He’s made me a lot happier,” the boy said. “He’s my best friend.”

He said he didn’t have much in the way of friends before his mentor, “I wasn’t very happy.” But his mentor talks to him, plays with him and they have a lot in common. They both like the Idaho Vandals, he said and smiled.

Miller said his mentee is “a joy, a great kid.”

“It’s one of the highlights of my week to spend time with him,” Miller said.

The Whitman Mentor Program, run by college students, started 16 years ago as a senior thesis with 20 matched pairs. This year there are 150 pairs.

Whitman students spend an hour a week, usually at lunchtime — sometimes eating with their mentees, chatting, playing games or doing outdoor recess activities.

Today’s carnival gave them time to have some really exciting fun together, bond more and give the mentees a chance to be on a college campus.

Carnival organizers Molly Carroll ’10 and Enrica Maffucci ’10 helped put together an event that included such activities as an arm-wrestling contest with Whitman students, basketball, a cow-milking contest, miniature golf, a “bouncy castle” and slide, and performances by college singing and dance groups.

But fun and games aside, Maffucci said “school intervention specialists tell (Whitman mentors) stories of mentees who didn't like coming to school at all and now show up early on the day that their mentor is coming to make sure that they have everything done so that they can go out for all of recess — and parents who call in to tell them how incredibly grateful they are for the positive changes they have seen in their child's outlook. “

She said her mentoring experiences helped her realized how crucial interconnections  between people are to “approaching life with a happy and healthy attitude,” she said.

She said she's well aware of some of the difficult things some of these kids are struggling with, and so when hearing about the significant differences mentors are making in their mentees' lives, it is about the clearest proof to her “that you don't have to go to the other side of the world to help somebody who really needs it and change your own world for the better in the process.”

— Virginia Grantier. Photos by Andrew Propp ’10.