BEST OF 2023: Champions for children

Mentors for Communities in Schools provide a “priceless presence”

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

(originally published February 26)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Communities In Schools is hands down one of the best programs in not only West Virginia, but the United States. I had the opportunity a few years ago to sit down with Communities In Schools founder Bill Milliken – a guy who is equal parts Santa Claus and Mad Hatter – and it was an amazing experience.

Locally, there are some real champions who step up to make sure that the next generation of Mountaineers have the support they need. And Stephen does a great job highlighting just a few of those champions in this story here. – Matthew Young.

A teenager entirely responsible for her household–grocery shopping, doing laundry, cooking meals. 

A child putting himself to bed each night. 

A child with no one to help her do homework. 

A child not knowing who he will come home to each day.

Children today face enormous stressors, and mentors for Communities in Schools Greenbrier County (CISGC) are there to help. Their job is to be a consistent, positive presence in the life of their students. 

“Last school year, we provided individual case-management to nearly 500 students in Greenbrier County,” reports CISGC Director Brittany Masters. “More mentors would equal better outcomes for more students, which means a stronger community.”

Sam Cahill Wilson serves as a mentor. Why does she do it? “Your presence is priceless. All it requires is your time and attention to really help these kids.” 

Communities in Schools West Virginia (CISWV) operates in 38 counties across West Virginia. Greenbrier County opened the first West Virginia chapter in 2003. Today, CISGC is a proud partner of CISWV. Dozens of mentors meet with students every week to provide guidance and support, in hopes of achieving better outcomes for students and the communities in which they live. 

Sam Cahill Wilson

Sam Cahill Wilson began mentoring in 2018. She saw a flyer at her church seeking volunteer mentors. “I was searching for a way to get involved,” she recalls. “I felt an instant connection to the program.” 

She spent two years with her first student, who was in high school. When that student graduated, Sam heard there was a need for elementary school mentors. “They told me that’s what they needed, so I said I’ll help.” Two years in with her new student, Sam’s plan is to follow her all the way through graduation. 

“This program is about having an adult show up and show the kids they are worthy, cared for, and a priority,” Sam explains. “They need to know that you will be there to back them up, no matter what.” 

Sam says the biggest challenge her students face is not knowing their worth. “Kids carry so much we don’t know about,” Sam says with a heavy heart. “Sometimes we forget about the needs in our own backyard.”

Every week, Sam is excited to see her student, because she believes the program works. “My student told me her favorite day of the week is the day we meet,” she says. “And I love it too! You can bless someone else and be blessed yourself!” 

James & Joanne Holt

James and Joanne Holt relocated from northern Virginia to the Greenbrier Valley in 2020 with their children. 

“We have kids in school, but as parents we really didn’t know what the program did,” says Joanne. “One of their staff members approached us, especially James since he’s a veteran and male role models are key. That’s what’s lacking.” 

“Joanne has thousands of hours of volunteer service as a military spouse,” says James. “I’ve watched her do it for 20 years, and it’s cool to get to volunteer with her now that I’m off active duty.”   

James said he initially was hesitant to mentor. “I didn’t seek it out. I didn’t know what it was, so I made excuses that I was too busy or whatever. Then I looked into it, and it was a good thing. It’s an hour out of my week and it’s a great thing to be a part of. These kids need someone looking out for them.” 

Joanne agrees it’s a valuable use of their time. “It’s an opportunity to make a difference. The kids are on the edge. They’re barely hanging on. They need someone to provide some guidance and be a consistent presence.” 

Mentors are trained not to be tutors or teachers. While they may occasionally work on homework, they are encouraged to instead be flexible to what the child’s needs are. 

“Sometimes we just play UNO,” says Joanne, “because that’s what she needs. Some time to just be a kid.” 

“Most of the time we play chess or play sports,” James says of his mentoring time with his student. “He doesn’t have any other male influences. He doesn’t have a dude to throw a football with.”

James is also teaching his student how to ride a bike at the school. “He got a bike for his birthday but didn’t know how to ride it. So I am teaching him. It’s been good. It’s simple; it’s just spending time together.” 

Jody Hammond

Jody Hammond is originally from the Greenbrier Valley. She began mentoring with CISGC a few years ago when she returned to the area. “When I moved back from Charleston, I looked for ways to connect and serve,” she recalls. “This sounded like a great program, and the flexibility fit my work schedule which involved a lot of travel.” 

Jody was assigned a middle school student who held all the tools to succeed, but she simply couldn’t get herself together. “She had a tutor, was willing to ask tough questions, but didn’t have much direction,” Jody says. “My role is to be a sounding board. We talk about her hopes and dreams, and mainly how to get there.” 

“What they really need is someone to be consistent,” Jody says. “And it’s my fun! My student is so funny. Every time I go, I come out of there feeling uplifted. I’m giving back, but at the same time, I’m getting a lot.” 

More mentors needed

Brittany Masters is the CISGC Executive Director. She believes mentors are making a positive impact. “Statistics show children with mentors are less likely to skip school, less likely to use drugs, more likely to volunteer regularly, and more likely to hold leadership positions.” 

And with more mentors, she sees a future filled with hope for local students. “I imagine what our community would look like in 10-20 years if every child had at least one person in their corner cheering them on and guiding their steps.”

To learn more or sign up as a mentor, visit www.cisgc.org or call them at 304-661-1018. 

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