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Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor program at Knoxville high school, one of 44 in nation

, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee Published 7:58 p.m. ET May 24, 2018

Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee is working with South-Doyle High School students in a nationwide program that pairs mentors from various businesses and organizations in Knoxville with high school students.

The Mentor 2.0 program focuses specifically on college readiness for high school students.

South-Doyle is one of 44 schools in the country where the program is being implemented.

Frank Benefield, one of the mentors in the program, said it has been a valuable experience for him and his mentee student, Isaiah.

“Isaiah’s learning, but I’m also learning,” said Benefield. “I came in as a student, and that hasn’t changed and it’s not going to change.”

South-Doyle just finished its second year of the program, and mentors and students say they are excited for the third year.

Jake Thomas, a program coordinator for BBBS, has been working specifically with Isaiah and the freshmen at South-Doyle.

“Teens are hard; they are one of the most difficult ages,” said Thomas. “But it’s probably one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had. They make it worth it coming in every day.”

The perfect pair

Benefield and Isaiah were paired up at the beginning of the year, along with 45 other  South-Doyle freshmen and mentors. The selection process isn’t random; the program coordinators spend time matchmaking mentors with their (hopefully) perfect mentee.

“Prior to the school year, we sit down with a big white board of mentors and mentees and start pairing people,” said Thomas.

Mentors talk with their mentees about college and how to get there. Financial aid, professionalism and career choices are regular topics of conversation; however, it’s more than just the logistics.

A digital connection

Most of the communication between Isaiah and Benefield happens through email, which works well for mentors with busy lifestyles. However, they are hoping for more in-person activities.

“I would change the fact that we don’t go out to field trips. If we got a few buses, go take us somewhere, that would definitely help with the closeness,” said Isaiah.

This online communication is an important part of the program, which aimed to attract teenagers in a different way. BBBS sees the highest rate of mentee drop-out when students enter high school. The program helps prevent that.

The in-person meetings are a great opportunity to catch up and expand further on conversations.

“Isaiah is really interested in higher education and wanting to exceed in that arena,” said Benefield. “That’s where I work, that’s where I live. So we have a lot of common interests in that area.”

Benefield, who does a little bit of mentoring in his job as a transition coach at the University of Tennessee, wanted to expand this to more than college students.

“I saw the opportunity through the Mentor 2.0 program to have the opportunity to work with a student before they get to college and start an early relationship,” said Benefield.

Isaiah says that he has really enjoyed the program.

“It has helped me get an older, wiser person’s insight in how (Benefield) became successful. It’s definitely been a great experience.”

Benefield has also benefited, saying he continues to learn through each interaction with Isaiah.

“I was surprised when talking to Isaiah about what it means to be 15 years old. In my head I was expecting one thing, what 15 looked like and sounded like, and it was something totally different.”

Creating meaningful relationships

Big Brothers Big Sisters East Tennessee was started in 1970. It is on track to reach its goal of 1,000 children mentored by 2020, according to a press release.

The program is a collaboration with iMentor, an investment with nonprofit social innovation organization New Profit Inc. BBBS has 91 students enrolled.

Thomas hopes to see these same results in the upcoming years with South-Doyle students. BBBS is hoping to add 100 more students to the program next year, and they’re confident that the relationships formed between the students and mentors are already making a difference.

“Never underestimate the value of your relationship with someone else,” said Thomas.

Thomas and the Mentor 2.0 team are looking for another group of mentors for the sophomore and freshman cohorts at South-Doyle High School. If you’re interested in getting involved, you can visit their website or email Mia King. 

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