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Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023

Pandemic isolation and social anxiety leads to increased participation in mentoring program for Addison County kids

Katie Cantrell ’23 with her Community Friends mentee Carson, 10, in February 2022.
Katie Cantrell ’23 with her Community Friends mentee Carson, 10, in February 2022.

A club that pairs Middlebury students with kids at Addison County schools has seen an uptick in participation as a result of increased mental and social struggles among local elementary schoolers, likely caused by the pandemic. 

Community Friends had a 33% increase in matches in this month’s spring match cycle, according to Katie Cantrell ’23, one of the club’s lead student coordinators. Cantrell said she attributes this increase in kids participating in the program to widespread loneliness and social anxiety as local schools returned to in-person learning this past fall and then removed mask mandates in mid-March. 

“[There is] a dramatic increase that we are seeing [in number of participants] as we are transitioning out of Covid-19 rules,” Cantrell said. 

The majority of new kids joining the club are in the kindergarten and first grade age range, meaning their first year of school was entirely masked and/or online, said Gwen Orme ’23, the club’s other lead student coordinator. Orme said she has also encountered older kids who are having behavioral issues or are struggling with respecting personal space after having been home for two years and not interacting with many peers their age. 

Kids aged 6 to 12 at any Addison County elementary school are eligible to participate in the Community Friends mentoring program. The program currently has 75 active mentor-mentee pairings, though the number of matches has fluctuated substantially during the pandemic. 

There is not one school that attracts a clear majority of kids to the program, Cantrell said. Rather, it is a mix of kids from Mary Hogan Elementary, Orwell Village School, Salisbury Elementary, Bristol Elementary, Cornwall Elementary, Ferrisburgh Central School, Vergennes Union Elementary, Middlebury Union Middle School and a couple of home-schooled kids. 

Cantrell said about 70% of kids that participate in the program are referred by their school counselors or therapists. The remaining kids come to the group because their siblings have a mentor, their family friends have a mentor or one of their parents is a Middlebury professor. 

Orme and Cantrell said they emphasize the opportunity for kids to make friends with peers who participate in the program through bigger group events that include many pairs of mentors and mentees. 

“We know kids are struggling to make friends and socialize in school,” Cantrell added. 

Before the pandemic, mentors and their mentees were expected to meet for two hours each week in-person. Mentor-mentee pairings had access to any spots on campus; popular activities included eating in the dining halls together, visiting the athletic center, looking at books in the library and attending sporting events, Orme said. 

The onset of the pandemic in March 2020 forced the club to switch to virtual mentoring, which created a number of challenges. Some mentors returned home to international locations, which made coordinating time zones difficult, while a number of mentees did not have computer or internet access, Orme said. The club implemented letter writing as an alternative form of communication, but it often proved difficult to keep students’ attention, she added.

They also switched meeting expectations from two hours per week to between 30 minutes and an hour as kids struggled with Zoom fatigue from online school all day. Orme said about 30% of mentors lost contact with their mentees at some point during the pandemic. 

When students returned to campus in fall 2020, the college’s no-visitor policy forced all Community Friends to remain virtual. Meetings continued virtually through the fall 2021 semester, as many kids aged 6 to 12 could not receive the vaccine until early 2022. 

Cantrell and Orme, along with the rest of the club’s Coordinating Board, put on a series of Zoom events during this time of virtual meetings. These events included a “Boo Bash” with an online scavenger hunt and virtual pumpkin carving, a winter wonderland festival with asynchronous winter crafts and a weekly story hour. Orme said it was a challenge to get attendance at those events, though, and typically only about two mentor-mentee pairings attended. 

The beginning of the spring 2022 semester marked a shift to in-person meetings outdoors and with masks required. On March 15, all Addison County school districts shifted to a mask optional policy, which allowed Community Friends to return to normal pre-Covid operations. 

Along with the excitement of mentors and mentees meeting fully in-person for the first time in two years, Cantrell said, the club will be putting on a couple of events for all matches in the coming weeks. 

On Sunday, April 24, there will be a field day event at Pepin Gymnasium, with activities such as jenga and bag races. Saturday, May 7, will be the end-of-year barbeque celebration, with a tie dye station using special Community Friends t-shirts and a snow cone machine, Cantrell said. 

“It’s a whole big fun celebration,” she added. 

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The club receives funding for events like the field day and the barbeque from a combination of college funding and donations from alumni or previous mentors, Orme said. The group has a couple of mentees whose parents were a part of the club themselves as children. 

Both Cantrell and Orme have been involved with Community Friends since their first semester in fall 2019. Cantrell’s mentee, Carson, was 7 when they were matched, and Orme’s mentee, Shelby, was 6. The two stepped into the roles of co-lead student coordinators at the beginning of this semester, after serving two semesters on the club’s 10-person Coordinating Board.

“Carson has taught me more than he’ll ever be able to grasp at 10 years old. He really is my best friend,” Cantrell said. “It really is a two-way mentorship. As much as I hope that I am helping him, I have learned just as much.” 

Orme added that it has been special to see Middlebury students give back to the Addison County community now that restrictions are opening up on campus. “I [am] so pleased with how the Middlebury Community [has] shown up for these kids.” 

Editor’s Note: Maggie Reynolds is a mentor with the Community Friends Club.

Maggie Reynolds

Maggie Reynolds '24 is the Senior Local Editor. 

She previously served as Local Editor and Staff Writer. Maggie spent this past summer in Vermont, covering arts & culture for Seven Days VT. She also interned as a news reporter with the Daily Gazette in Schenectady, NY during summer 2021. 

Maggie is studying History with minors in Spanish and Political Science. She is also a member of the Women's Swimming & Diving team.