A Whitman student plays basketball with an elementary school student.
Walla Walla elementary students and Whitman students participate in the annual Mentees to Campus Day in spring 2019. (Photos by Katy Laliotis '21)

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As a mentor at local elementary school, Joey Hewitt ’19 wasn’t sure he was making a difference to his young friend, Carlos.

“I remember him saying, ‘Marissa, I don’t know that I’m impacting him at all,’” remembered Marissa Ruzicka Lopez, program coordinator for the Friends of Children of Walla Walla.  

Then one day, the Whitman College psychology student was going to miss his scheduled time to come to Carlos’s school and he called Ruzicka Lopez to let her know.

“I said, ‘Can you come for just 15 minutes? I’ll come pick you up,’” she said. When they entered the school lunchroom, Carlos was sitting alone at a table, facing a wall. But when he saw Hewitt, his face lit up. 

“That day changed Joey forever. We walked out and he said, ‘I didn’t realize what I meant to Carlos. I want to stay in his life forever,’” she said.

That’s the kind of impact that Ruzicka Lopez sees happening every day between children at Walla Walla’s elementary schools and their college-age mentors. (See a video about Carlos and Joey).

Coming Together for Kids

In March 2020, Whitman College, Friends of Children of Walla Walla and the Walla Walla Public School District (WWPS) signed a new letter of understanding to consolidate and strengthen two different mentoring programs to better serve — and reach more — children. 

The new program, Whitman Friends, combines the Friends ABC Program and the Whitman Mentor Program. Both programs have been around for more than two decades and recruit Whitman College students to be paired up with an elementary student who could benefit from mentorship. Once a week, the college students visit their buddies during lunch and recess.

“We’re all trying to get as many mentors into the schools as possible,” said Susan Prudente, assistant director for community engagement in Whitman’s Student Engagement Center (SEC). “We had two programs doing the same work with a slightly different approach.”

The different approaches to recruitment, training and processes has led to confusion all-around, Prudente said.

Under the new agreement, Whitman Friends will be a collaborative effort between the SEC and Friends of Children of Walla Walla. The two organizations will work together to recruit students, and offer the same training to all participants to prepare them for the work. The school district benefits by having a singular point of contact for questions about the program, and a streamlined process for knowing where mentors are coming from and when.

The school district is also committed to identifying more children for the program: With a goal of 20-25 youths from each of the five elementary schools in Walla Walla. Friends Executive Director Jim Byrnes hopes to see it grow even more in the coming years.

“The whole idea about resilience is if you can get the kids early enough and young enough, it can help change their entire perspective on life,” he said.

Each school uses different criteria to identify the children eligible for the mentor program, but typically the children face extra challenges, such as unstable home environments. A focus of Friends’ work is training its mentors on ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences. ACEs incorporates traumatic events experienced in childhood, including substance use, mental health issues, abuse or parental separation. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems and negatively impact education. Friends offers mentors opportunities to learn about ACEs and how creating resilience in children can positively impact them, Byrnes said.

“Research confirms that quality mentoring relationships have powerful positive effects on young people in a variety of personal, academic and professional situations. Ultimately, mentoring connects a young person to personal growth and development, and social and economic opportunity,” said WWPS Superintendent Wade Smith. “Our goal is to ensure that every identified student is served.”

But it’s not just the mentees who benefit. The mentors are also touched by these friendships.

“It's been a great experience because my buddy, Jordan, inspires me by how much he cares about our friendship and his friendships at school,” said Sam Geschickter ’20, a religion major. “He's always looking out for the people around him and he's been a fun person to be around.”

Note: Whitman College’s in-person community programs are discontinued for the remainder of spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Whitman Friends program will restart in the fall.