New mentoring program carves a path out of poverty for youth

OSHKOSH, WI — As a young girl, Amanda Schulz understood this about money: Her family didn’t have much of it. She grew up in poverty. She was fortunate to recognize opportunities to move herself onto a better path in life – a statistically unusual thing for a poor child to do.

A former member of the Boys and Girls Club of Oshkosh, Schulz shared her inspirational story at a community poverty stimulation organized by the Self Sufficiency Project in 2009. Her journey to academic success sparked the creation of a new program which aims to move more poor children to academic and career success.

Photo caption: Amanda Schulz displays her Youth of the Year award from the Boys and Girls Club of Oshkosh while surrounded by other Club members. Photo courtesy of the Boys and Girls Club of Oshkosh

That program, the Self-Sufficiency Project’s Great Futures Start Here Middle School Mentoring Program, is slated to begin this fall and will draw from the collaborative resources of the Oshkosh Area School District and the Boys and Girls Club, as well as the expertise of several supporting organizations.

As many as 30 mentors will be assigned to students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades to help the students navigate their school careers and teach them decision making skills needed to implement their life plans.

“It feels good to know that my story inspired this,” Schulz said. “I am glad that I was able to help future teens going through some of the same things I went through.”

The Self Sufficiency Project is one of six projects or programs that received a total of more than $293,200 in grants this summer through the Basic Giving Needs Partnership, which is supported locally by the U.S. Venture Fund for Basic Needs of the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, the J. J. Keller Foundation and the John E. Kuenzl Foundation.

The annual U.S. Venture Open charity golf outing, which is slated to take place Aug. 14 at select golf courses throughout the Fox Valley, is the primary fundraising event for these and other basic needs grants throughout Northeast Wisconsin. Last year’s outing raised more than $2 million.

The Self Sufficiency Project’s mentoring program also received financial support from ThedaCare, the J. J. Keller Foundation and the Women’s Fund of the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation.

Statistics help define the need for the program. According to the state Department of Public Instruction, students of low socio-economic status do not achieve academic success at the same rates as other students. For example, at Oshkosh North High School from 2009 to 2011, only 66.4 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduated in four years, while 83 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduated in five years. The mentoring program was developed to change these statistics in the hopes of getting to the root of problems.

“This program is exclusively designed to move students in poverty to self-sufficiency,” said Brenda Haines, facilitator of the Self Sufficiency Project.

The school district and Boys and Girls Club will lead the pilot, but several other organizations have key roles in the collaboration. The school district will identify and enroll students, track and monitor their grades, and facilitate teacher and student surveys. The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh will train mentors through the Center for Career Development Employability and Training. ADVOCAP will identify, recruit, screen and match volunteer mentors with students. The Department of Workforce Development/WIA Youth Programs will develop career plans with each student to help them set goals. The Oshkosh Community YMCA facilities will host family-friendly activities for participants.

Paula Morgen, a Self Sufficiency Project committee member, is excited for this program to begin and has hope that the children who participate can bring an end to the cycle of poverty for many families.

“Unless youth can envision a different world, and are introduced to a new way of life, the cycle of poverty will continue,” Morgen said. “Education is the key to their success. ? The possibility that a lot more kids will have a brighter future is success in itself.”

There are measurable goals that this success will be gauged by. The mentoring program aims to have all program participants score as proficient or advanced in eighth grade math, as measured by WKCE, create post-graduation plans and meet college/career readiness benchmarks, and graduate high school in four years.

Schulz said that she thinks this program will provide a subtle way for teens to get help from someone.

“When I went to the Boys and Girls Club, I was often picked on at school for being a part of the program,” Schulz said. “As a teen that’s hard, but I never let that negativity slow me down. The mentoring program will be a nice way to drop that negativity for teens.”

The Oshkosh Area Community Foundation awarded the following grants this summer through the Basic Needs Giving Partnership:

Employment training services: $50,000 to provide at least 50 refugees annually with intensive employment-related training services including workplace literacy, transportation, childcare and work clothing. Year 1 of a 3-year grant of $150,000. Collaborators: ADVOCAP, Winnebago County Literary Council.

Skills Enhancement program: $10,000 to ADVOCAP, Inc. to help low-income wage earners in Winnebago County access education and training in order to secure higher paying jobs with benefits. Year 1 of 3- year grant of $22,500.

Bridge Mentoring program: $15,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of the Tri County Area to improve grades, attendance and other negative behaviors of at-risk middle-school aged youth served through mentoring services.

Children’s Healthy Vision program: $2,000 to Prevent Blindness Wisconsin to train staff at two Oshkosh Head Start sites as certified vision screeners, and ensure that children receive vision care if needed while also supporting children’s early literacy. Year 1 of 2-year grant of $4,000.

Great Futures program: $25,500 to pair middle- and high-school students in poverty with a mentor to help them navigate the path to self-sufficiency through career planning and development of life- and decision-making skills. Year 1 of 3-year grant of $86,700. Collaborators: Boys and Girls Club of Oshkosh, Oshkosh Area School District, UW Oshkosh, ADVOCAP, Department of Workforce Development and Oshkosh YMCA.

Mobile Dental Clinic services: $15,000 to Tri- County Community Dental Clinic, Inc. to continue to improve the oral health of low-income residents, primarily children, with mobile dental clinic services at Oshkosh area schools, the Boys and Girls Club, the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry and World Relief.

The Oshkosh Area Community Foundation is a nonprofit charitable organization created by and for the people of Winnebago County, Waushara County, Green Lake County and Ripon. Through charitable giving, the Community Foundation strives to make our communities thrive. For more information, please call 920-426-3993.

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