Children who are new to America or are first-generation Americans face a multitude of difficult problems. Particularly vulnerable are those children who grow up in immigrant families where English is not spoken. One only has to visit any school in the Long Branch Community of Montgomery County, Maryland to see that need. This area (also known as the “Blair Cluster”) is the most densely populated, culturally diverse and economically deprived area in Montgomery County. More than half of all students in the Blair Cluster schools are eligible for free and reduced meals (the average for other county clusters is 25%). Long Branch has the largest concentration of low-income households. These children are reportedly at serious risk for dropping out of school, getting into drugs or joining gangs.
The “Bridges” mentoring program is one of Interages’ intergenerational programs designed to match caring senior adult volunteers with immigrant children. All mentors are over age 55 with several currently over 80. Now in its 10th year, Bridges works with the schools that are most heavily affected by the steady stream of immigrants to this area. Bridges targets children who have been in this country for less than three years and many of them are here only a couple of months when they enter the program.
The mentors act like friends and “guides to America” for these children. Thirty mentors meet with their proteges once a week throughout the school year. At three schools (one elementary school and two middle schools), 10 pairs meet after school in classrooms where they engage in educational and fun-filled activities building a close and trusting relationship. On any given day, one can see pairs reading newspapers, playing educational games, doing homework, reading books together, writing stories, doing crossword puzzles, activity sheets, or a craft about an upcoming holiday. The children are eager to have their senior friends return each week. For one hour a week, they know there is some consistency in their life. These seniors do whatever they can to help the children with their acculturation. The children begin to connect to the larger community through the support and confidence they receive from this relationship.
In the majority of the cases, mentors continue to meet with the children for two to three additional years as part of the weekly Bridges mentoring program. Many of the pairs see each other outside of the structured weekly program for a variety of activities during the year. The mentors help the students to understand and become comfortable with their community by taking them to local points of interest. There are mentors from the first class 10 years ago that are still in touch with their first proteges. One mentor occasionally has lunch with his former protégé from 8-10 years ago that has now graduated from high school and seeks advice about the world of work. Another mentor is helping her first protégé fill out an application for the local community college.
Bringing senior adults together with at-risk kids helps two groups of people to have a positive impact on one another. The struggling immigrant children certainly benefit from the experience, support, and wisdom of their elder American friends and the seniors feel valued and have a purpose in helping their young friends.