Locals take time out for youngsters

Published 5:04 pm Saturday, October 23, 2010

Kathy Leisen has been everywhere from the Minnesota Zoo to the National Eagle Center to light shows in Zumbro Falls over the last four years — all with the two young girls she mentors as part of the Mower County Mentoring Program.

Leisen has been involved as a mentor in the program for about four years, and she said mentoring has not only benefited her mentees, but her as well.

“I have found the program to be a very rewarding experience,” Leisen said. “We get together almost every week for a few hours.”

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Linda Johnson, Mower County Mentoring Program coordinator, said the program is similar to a Big Brothers Big Sisters program, although the two are not affiliated with each other.

“Mentors are there to be a wise, experienced adult,” Johnson said. “We get positive comments from parents about things they’ve seen happening with their kids.”

Johnson said the program is geared towards kids from age eight to age 18 who are in need of a positive adult influence. The mentees are usually referred to the program by parents, teachers or school counselors, Johnson said.

“(Mentors) are there to be supportive of (mentees) and talk to them about decision making and consequences,” Johnson said.

Steve King, mentor and director of Mower County Correctional Services, said he strives to be a source of stability in his mentee’s life.

“What I believe I bring to (my mentee) is some form of stability,” King said. “I see a need and if I can help, I do it.”

King said he has enjoyed watching his mentee grow and learn through their relationship.

“My mentee’s greatest accomplishment is learning to swim,” King said. “Taking him to the YMCA those first five times there was a fear of the water, so now watching him jump off the high-dive is a big deal.”

Ken Kroupa, who has been a mentor for the past eight years, said he tries to be a role model for the two boys he mentors.

“I try to do things that are good for boys,” Kroupa said. “I raised two boys of my own and have some ideas of what works and what they need to do as far as development.”

Kroupa said he has taken his mentees to Whitewater State Park and the Lanesboro bike trails and likes to mix up the activities so both he and his mentees stay interested and have fun.

“(Mentoring) makes me feel good because I feel that I’m doing some good for somebody else,” Kroupa said. “I enjoy being with kids; it encourages me to do things that I wouldn’t necessarily do otherwise.”

Leisen said she likes to take her mentees on mini-trips to places like the zoo, but she also enjoys spending time with them at her home baking, playing games, doing crafts or simply helping them with homework.

“They feel very comfortable in our home and when they’re here they’re just like family to (my husband and me),” Leisen said.

Johnson and King discussed some of the positive effects of the mentoring program.

“This is the key to keeping our corrections numbers down,” King said. “These kids aren’t corrections kids, but they are at risk.”

“It’s very rare that we have kids that get into some type of trouble with the law,” Johnson said. “And statistics show that truancy is down when kids are involved with mentoring. Their relationships with family at home is better.”

Johnson also said the communities in Mower County have been very supportive of the mentoring program.

“A lot of county businesses are involved and supportive,” she said.

Johnson said the Hormel Foundation, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, YMCA, Echo Lanes, Brownsdale Rohler Rink, HyVee and countless other organizations have supported the program in the 12 years that it has been active.

King also said the United Way of Mower County has given $10,000 to the program every year since 2005.

“I can’t even mention the mentoring program without mentioning the United Way of Mower County,” King said. “Without the United Way funding we would not have the program.”

There are currently 45 mentors and 81 children involved in the program, and Johnson said there is a great need for more mentors as there are 20 children on a waiting list for a mentor. She said male mentors are especially needed since many of the children on the waiting list are boys.

Adults interested in mentoring can get an application from the program office in the Mower County Justice Center. Background checks are done on all potential mentors, Johnson said.

Both Leisen and Kroupa said they and their mentees have benefited and grown from the program, and they hope more people will be willing to volunteer in the future.

“I would recommend it to anybody that’s available and can help do some good,” Kroupa said. “It’ll definitely help the kids in the long run.”

Leisen echoed Kroupa’s sentiments.

“It’s just a real rewarding program, and I would encourage people to give it a try,” Leisen said. “I just think in the long run it hopefully makes a difference in these kids’ lives.”