The Penobscot Times

River Runners seeks volunteers to mentor students in Old Town-Orono area

Gretchen Leithiser and Jessica Dumont know first-hand how influential the River Runners mentorship program is for the volunteers and the Orono-Old Town students it serves. 

Mentors share in the joys of their students’ successes and watch them persevere through challenges. They help students through high school and in college, cheer them on during sports games and dance recitals — not unlike the Big Brothers Big Sisters programs.

Students and their mentors become like family. 

That’s what makes it so hard on Leithiser and Dumont, the program’s leaders, as they struggle to find volunteer mentors amid the pandemic — knowing just how important the mission is, but unable to find enough people to do it. 

“It’s hard because it’s not like it’s about us right now, it’s about these kids,” Leithiser said. 

River Runners is part of the Aspirations Incubator, a six-year pilot program funded by the Emanuel and Pauline A. Lerner Foundation that pairs mentors with students in Maine’s rural communities. The Aspirations Incubator — which runs six pilot programs across Maine — supports kids in their early adolescence through college and helps to expand their aspirations and personal development. 

The foundation’s other programs are located in Bryant Pond, Biddeford, Belfast, Wiscasset and Cherryfield. 

River Runners pose in front of the “Keep Maine Beautiful” painted rock nearby Baxter State Park in Millinocket. (Photo courtesy of Gretchen Leithiser)

The Old Town-Orono program was established about four years ago and is partnered with RSU 34 and the Old Town-Orono YMCA. The local program currently serves 71 students in grades seven through 10. 

River Runners is available to any student who lives in the RSU 34 district. There are no other qualifications to participate and all seventh-graders in the area — including homeschooled students — can apply.  

It has just seven adult mentors, along with some younger peer mentors, for all of its students. 

Dumont and Leithiser were in the process of recruiting more volunteers when the pandemic hit — which made it even more challenging to get people to sign up for unpaid service. 

Leithiser said they do continuous training and research best practices to help kids succeed. The pair said they know that young students are positively impacted by adult mentorship and it’s hard not being able to provide it because of the pandemic.

It’s also challenging to convince people to volunteer for unpaid work at a time when many families are facing financial struggles. Searching for more mentors, Leithiser and Dumont sent out a message advertising the program to the YMCA’s members, hoping a few people would sign up. 

It got zero responses. 

“I think people are feeling so burnt out right now [because of the pandemic], it’s hard to imagine adding something else on to your plate,” Leithiser said. 

The program’s leaders are hoping to get about 17 more adult mentors this year. For Leithiser and Dumont, mentoring a student has more impact than it might seem on the surface. 

River Runners pose for a photo with members of the University of Maine’s International Student Association. Program participants from top left to right are Charlotte Smallwood, Martie LeClair, skip, Lexi Degrasse, Emma Trefts, Danica Flewelling, Luke Soctomah, Carter Sevigny, Kobe Smith, Ethan Roach, Jessica Dumont, Taylor Dellechiaie, Allie Baker, and Caleb Smith. (Photo courtesy of Gretchen Leithiser)

Mentors take the kids on field trips such as snow tubing on Hermon Mountain, visits to Hirundo Wildlife Refuge or to see a movie at the cinemas. Mentors check in with students a couple times a week. They regularly meet students at the YMCA or stop by the schools in between their classes. 

During the pandemic, they’ve been doing Zoom meetings to continue building mentor-student relationships. “We get to build really strong relationships with the students and families,” Dumont said. 

We get to help them through all the different things they experience in those six years that they’re in River Runners, she said. “It’s a lot more than hanging out with a kid for an hour. They’re like family to us.” 

To Leithiser, mentoring has also brought her joy during the pandemic, when joyous moments can be few and far between. 

“I know one of the things that has been hard for me is finding joy,” she said. “When I’m around these kids, those are the times I’m happiest.” 

River Runners mentors also get to see the world through a different lens during the pandemic. “Watching [the students] persevere through all of this and stay dedicated to school, it’s really motivational and inspiring to be around,” Leithiser said. 

Olivia Neely remembers wanting to join River Runners after hearing her friends talk about it during lunch in the sixth grade. Now a sophomore at Old Town High School, she’s been in the program for about four years. 

The active sophomore runs track and cross country, is a member of the Key Club and a Girl Scout, in addition to participating in River Runners. 

Neely said she enjoys the support she gets from mentors and her peers in the program. “I really like how it’s a family,” she said. “It’s just amazing, I love it.”

Information about River Runners can be found via the program’s website.

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