The rapport between the two is remarkable, considering that they are neither peers nor relatives. Jaycee Fleege giggles as she tells LuAnn McQuillen about a Christmas gift she might have inadvertently spotted, one she hopes will be under the Christmas tree. They share a conspiratorial smile.
This unique friendship has developed since Jaycee was a kindergartner three years ago, when McQuillen became a volunteer with Delaware County Mentoring Connection, offered through Helping Services for Northeast Iowa.
Helping Services seeks to prevent and intervene in domestic violence, child abuse and substance misuse and also runs youth mentoring programs in Delaware, Howard, Winneshiek and Allamakee County.
The mentor program was designed around the idea that connecting a youth with a responsible adult sets the stage for better self-esteem and healthier choices.
Studies have shown a correlation between mentoring and positive outcomes for the student. Volunteer mentors work one-on-one with their mentee, building friendship and serving as a role model.
“Helping Services has offered a mentoring program in Delaware County since June 2010, with approximately 150 volunteers in that time,” mentoring coordinator Ellen Krogmann said. “We have 42 matches in our county right now.”
Background and reference checks are required for mentors, and they are asked to commit about four hours a month for a year. There are several ways of mentoring, including a community-based program with activities such as bowling, swimming, biking, movies or a picnic. Another option is to meet the student at school.
An after-school program matches high schoolers over age 16 with a younger child once a week after school. Krogmann goes into the schools to train student mentors.
Another program allows matches to meet in school with an occasional community activity. McQuillen and Fleege have managed to find a balance that works for both of them.
“I signed up for the school-based program since I work full-time at F&M Bank, and so that I could still have time to visit my children and grandchildren on the weekends,” McQuillen said. McQuillen is the mother of four children and grandmother to seven. “But Jaycee and I also occasionally do things in the community, especially during the summer or when school is out. I come to the school and share lunch with Jaycee, and then if her schoolwork is done, we’ll do some fun craft project together. Jaycee loves doing crafts and is very creative.”
The little girl smiles at the compliment and describes a purse they made together during a previous visit.
“We’ve made cookies together,” Fleege prompts McQuillen, “and ate at Olive That Deli.”
Group activities also connect mentors and mentees. “We’ve gone to the Field of Dreams, the Waterloo Center for the Arts, and the Dubuque (National Mississippi River Museum and) Aquarium,” Krogmann said. Upcoming events include a movie night in January and a mentoring Bowl-a-thon in February.
January is National Mentoring Month, and Krogmann hopes that community awareness of the program might encourage others to become volunteers. “I’ve got a waiting list of kids to be matched with a mentor,” Krogmann said.