May 11, 2014

Mentoring volunteers pair with Belleville students

Jefferson Elementary School third-grader Rai-Annah Mendez, 9, proudly brags that her mentor Diane Denison taught her how to sew.

"I really like to sew and I really wanted to learn," Rai-Annah said.

Rai-Annah said she had sock puppets that she wanted to make, but didn't know how to sew the buttons on so Diane Denison showed her.

Diane Denison, 70, and her husband Bill Denison, 72, of Belleville have served as volunteers in Jefferson's mentoring program for nearly a decade.

"I really want to try to a make a difference," said Diane Denison, who's retired from a local council of the Boy Scouts of America. "It's fun. We always have fun."

Diane Denison, who attended Jefferson as a child, has mentored Rai-Annah the last two years.

"It's good for the kids," Diane Denison said.

"It's really fun, because I get to spend a lot of time with my mentor," Rai-Annah said. "We have so much fun together. She teaches me new things. It's fun to learn new things."

Rai-Annah's mother Rachel Mendez of Belleville said Rai-Annah has benefited from the mentoring program just like her two older sisters did.

"She loves it. She loves her mentor," Rachel Mendez said. "It helps boosts her self-esteem. It helps them be better people in the long run."

The mentors meet with their mentees for one hour once a month during the school year at a time that's arranged with the student's teacher, said Connie Barre, a first-grade teacher at Jefferson who coordinates the program.

Bill Denison, who retired from Union Pacific Railroad, said he's been bringing in things on insects for his mentee Armani Parker, a second-grader who likes bugs.

"It's rewarding to us to be able to help, and they do need it," Bill Denison said. "I wish there were more of us. It's only one hour a month."

Mentor Dick Wahlig, 77, a retired Belleville School District 118 teacher, has mentored students at Jefferson the last 10 years.

"I enjoy being around and talking to him," Wahlig said of his mentee fifth-grader Jaden Russell. "They are all good kids. They are fun to be around."

Wahlig and Jaden like to joke a lot. "He's crazier than I am," Jaden said of his mentor. "He's good. He's better than that. He's great."

This year, Barre said 11 community members participated in the mentoring program, which she started 20 years ago in hopes of building values and raising self-esteem of students.

The mission of the mentoring program is "to provide children an opportunity to learn about friendship, responsibility, self-respect and good citizenship from adults who are willing to share their time, life experiences and heart to better the community in which we live."

Barre said the goal is for the mentors to travel right through to the sixth grade with the students. Students in the mentoring program are selected by their teachers, or she said parents have asked if their children could participate in the program.

Barre hosted a luncheon at the school May 5 to thank the mentors. Each student presented a gift and certificate to their mentor, and they decorated a picture frame together. Barre took photos of the mentors and mentees together during the event for the frame.

"They will remember this person," she said. "This is a person that cares about them."

Rai-Annah decorated her frame with everything from rainbows to stars to smiley faces. It also included a drawing of her, her mother and Diane Denison all holding hands.

Bill Denison's mentee Armani created a much simpler frame design with one smiley face sticker and the phrase "have a great day."

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