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Mentors help keep kids in school

Susan Hopkins and Nitsa Kalasountas share a moment recently at the library of the Secondary Learning Center. Hopkins has been Kalasountas
Susan Hopkins and Nitsa Kalasountas share a moment recently at the library of the Secondary Learning Center. Hopkins has been Kalasountas's mentor for almost 12 years.
— image credit: Brian Beckley, Renton Reporter

Nitsa Kalasountas, now 18, can barely remember a time before Susan Hopkins was in her life.

The two are not family, but ever since first grade, Hopkins has been mentoring Kalasountas as part of the Communities In Schools of Renton’s Mentor Program, and that has forged a bond between them that is just as strong.

“It’s a family within itself,” Nitsa said of the program.

There are presently about 100 mentors in the program, which has been active in Renton schools since 1995. The mentors agree to commit one hour per week for a year with students who are at the greatest risk of dropping out or having trouble in school.

“The idea is to give the mentees a stable, supportive person in their lives,” said program manager Mara Fiksdal. “Mentoring has been shown to really keep kids in school.”

It has worked for Nitsa, but back when she and Susan first met, Nitsa was going through some difficult times. Her father had just passed away and her mother had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

A month later, Nitsa was in the program and met Susan.

“It was kind of weird at first,” she says now, adding that a complete stranger showed up to talk with her and take in interest in her. But relatively quickly, the two began to bond as Susan provided an ear for young Nitsa’s issues and a stable, non-family adult presence in her life.

“I really didn’t have much counseling,” Nitsa said. “I had her.”

Nitsa said over the years, she grew to really appreciate her meetings with Susan, who became “like an aunt” to her.

Susan said overall working with Nitsa has been “easy,” but admitted to being a little overwhelmed in the beginning, but connected with Nitsa early on.

“I just sort of felt drawn to a young child going through that particular experience of losing a father,” she said.

Drawing on the program’s training, Susan often brought an activity to the meeting to “evoke conversation” with young Nitsa.

“It worked,” Nitsa said with a smile.

“Each week we kind of grew into each other,” Susan said.

Susan said she got involved in the program after retirement, as an opportunity to give back to a young person “when you can make a difference.”

Susan said she tried many of the techniques provided in training to draw her out and build a friendship, but admits “sometimes it was hit and miss” and said she wasn’t sure how to relate to Nitsa at first.

But in the end, Susan learned the most important thing was simply showing up week after week.

“It’s being there that’s more important than anything,” she said.

Relating to Nitsa became easier as the two grew together and Susan got a better handle on her role and Nitsa became more comfortable.

“For me, it was making certain I was listening to what she was saying,” Susan said.

Some weeks they would play games or do homework, others they would just talk. Some weeks Susan would have to work to draw her out, some weeks Nitsa led.

The pair said the greatest challenge to their relationship came when Nitsa made the transition to middle school and Susan said she had to change as Nitsa grew into a young woman, often meaning the two would spend their time talking, or in Susan’s case, listening.

“It’s not you, it’s about them,” she said of the mentees in the program. “It’s been so rewarding.”

Nitsa said having Susan around helped her deal with the stresses of school and home life and helped her learn how to handle those issues on her own.

“She’s like my bowling bumpers,” Nitsa said with a broad smile and a glance toward Susan. “She kind of keeps me between the lines.”

But Susan also learned some things from Nitsa during their meetings, things like popular cultures, as well as how to let relationships evolve without having to constantly define them.

“When I think of Nitsa, it brings a smile to my face,” she said.

According to Finksdel, the pairing of Susan and Nitsa is exactly what those who run the program hope for.

“This match is a successful match,” she said.

It has been so successful, in fact, that Nitsa has taken on a mentee of her own, a seventh-grader, though not through the official program.

Nitsa said she finds herself using techniques that Susan used in their relationship and is learning to listen to the problems of her student in the same way Susan did.

“The scary thing is I see a lot of me in her,” Nitsa told Susan with a laugh.

Fiksdal said the program is always trying to recruit new mentors and has a special need for African American men. Though it absolutely takes a time commitment and may take some work, Finksdel promised it would all be worth it in the end.

“Our mentors love this program,” she said.

For more information on the Communities in Schools of Renton Mentors Program visit their web page at http://renton.ciswa.org/.

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