Kids are silly happy about their opportunities after completing the Be GREAT: Graduate program through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Phoenix.

The Arizona Department of Education reports that of every 100 students who enter the ninth grade in Arizona, only 68 will graduate on time. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Phoenix (BGCMP) is working to change that with Be GREAT: Graduate.

BGCMP is doubling the students helped by Be GREAT: Graduate, a program that organization officials said has made a dramatic difference in participants’ grades, attendance and behavior. Last year, the program’s mentors assisted 28 students from two locations, one in Peoria. This year, the program is recruiting caring adults to become mentors, changing the lives of more than 50 at-risk students.

“The feeling you get from being a mentor is rewarding in a way that nothing else is,” said VP of Club Operations Bridget McDonald. “People often think they’re just going to be helping with homework, but that isn’t true. You’re talking, playing and encouraging - teaching kids how to grow in all kinds of ways. I can’t overstate how important it is for these kids to engage with positive role models.”

The Jerry and Helen Wisotsky/Peoria Branch of the B&G Clubs of Metro Phoenix, 11820 N. 81st Ave., is making great strides with getting kids on the path to success.

Branch Director Heather Budzein said, “The Be GREAT: Graduate program pairs volunteer mentors with struggling students in order to raise their grades, boost their attendance, and improve their behavior. It was a huge success last year. We want to reach twice as many struggling kids this year, but we need more volunteers from the community. It’s a very rewarding experience for volunteers.” 

Cindi Morton coordinates the Be GREAT: Graduate program for four different clubs in the West Valley. Monday, she, Budzein and communications associate Aaron Neber talked about the Peoria program and the successes of the past year with Be GREAT: Graduate.

Morton said, “We’re looking for individuals interested in getting involved with Boys & Girls Club on a different level of volunteer service. We’re looking for volunteers who can pass an extensive background check, who want to make a one-year commitment for one hour a week for the remainder of the school year.”

They will be introduced and stay close to Morton, but the goal is to give a child identified at risk – for any number of reasons – to have an adult be involved in their life, talk abut higher education, take what they are being offered and take it seriously, so down the road, they will have more opportunity.

The criteria for kids to be in the program? They must live in single-parent households where income is below the federal poverty line; parents who did not complete their own education; kids with no passing grades; kids with a high rate of truancy.

“It’s all cleared with the parents,” Morton said. “We introduce the program to parents themselves, and once we have their permission to have a mentor for their child, we monitor kids’ grades, attendance as a baseline for the program with hopes that by the end of the school year, we see tremendous growth.”

Last year was the launch year. At the Peoria club, 10 kids participated. Of those 10, Morton said, all completed the program, and there was a grade increase of one letter per subject area: reading, math, language arts, science, and social studies. Absentee rates dropped by more than 75 percent.

Morton said, “The mentors we have are not necessarily those who have extensive experience with adolescents, kids between grades five and eight, tweens, where they’re a little more difficult to deal with. But, they were very successful. I brought three back into the program this year because their parents requested it. Now, we are looking for more mentors because we want to grow the program even larger.”

When they walk in the door of the club, kids in the Be Great: Graduate program know they have expectations to meet, and activities.

Morton said, “It’s almost like keeping the child extra busy, keeping them focused. A primary piece of the program is that not only mentors and the kids themselves become involved, but other kids know they’re involved and keep tabs on them. They know, overall, if they meet expectations, there are rewards, immediate and long-term.

“Right now, we have a waiting list of about a dozen kids. We officially launched last week for the five kids we have matched and are ready to go.

So, with a waiting list of kids, we need mentors to pair up with them.”

Budzein said the kids really look forward to seeing their mentor.

“They know which day of the week they’re coming,” she said. “It’s just an exciting hour or more they can spend together. They’re more than welcome to spend more time here.”

The Peoria club is open 3 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, so mentoring time can fit easily into a volunteer’s schedule.

Morton said, “The best part is you don’t have to have experience with kids. It’s a one on one, not 35 or 50 kids. We provide training. I provide quarterly training for mentors. Plus, I’m in the role where I get to help mentors navigate the relationship. It’s ongoing support.”

Membership at the Peoria club, including teens, was close to 583. Clubs serve youth 5 to 18 at all metro Phoenix branches.

Individuals interested in becoming a volunteer mentor can call the Peoria branch at 623-979-3559. To learn more about the Be GREAT: Graduate program, call Morton at 480-250-1472.