Meeting the Mentors: engaging and supporting students in their academic success

An Agence Ometz initiative, Maximize Youth Potential (MYP) and Junior MYP are programs that focus on engaging and supporting children, adolescents and young adults in their academic success.  The primary objective is to break the cycle of poverty by encouraging, supporting and working with children, adolescents and young adults from high-risk families, to ensure that they complete high school and enter post-secondary studies.

The programs receive tremendous support from members of our community who generously donate their time to tutor and mentor its participants. As volunteers, Lara Feldman and Zoe Polsky were kind enough to share their experiences with Tikun Olam.

Mentor and Tutor: Lara Feldman

Lara Feldman

Lara Feldman is a Psychology student at McGill University. Her love for working with kids eventually compelled her to become a tutor in Agence Ometz’s afterschool Maximizing Youth Potential (MYP) program, where she had also volunteered as a mentor.

[Tikun Olam] How did you first get involved with Ometz? Can you please offer a little glimpse into the community work you’ve done over the last few years?

[Lara Feldman] About a year ago, I decided that I wanted to get involved in the Jewish community in some capacity but I didn’t really know what I could do or what programs existed. I found the Ometz website online and was impressed by the diversity of the programs they offered to the community.

I first got involved in their mentorship program which was incredibly rewarding and taught me a lot about what it meant to be a role model to someone. I was involved in that until the end of last school year, and now I have just started being a tutor in their Maximize Youth Potential Program.

[T.O.] I understand that you’ve been both a mentor and a tutor. How would you compare the roles?

[L.F.] In a lot of ways, they’re similar and there is an overlap between the two roles. The tutoring program is unique in the sense that instead of teaching the kids how to do a specific problem, we’re teaching them the tools to find the answers on their own. Every tutoring session is centered on the individual needs of the pupil, rather than on a specific school subject and we try to make it very personal. The biggest difference between the two is that as a tutor, my relationship is built on helping the student develop the techniques needed to tackle school, whereas as a mentor, I was helping the child I was mentoring develop the techniques she needed to tackle life.

[T.O.] How would you describe the relationship/bond you formed with the child you were mentoring?

[L.F.] My relationship with my mentee developed more quickly than I had anticipated. I was paired with an incredible young girl who shared many of the same interests as me so we had a lot of fun bonding over activities that we both enjoyed. We did lots of art projects, learned how to skate together and loved going out for mushroom pizza, all the while talking about what was going on in each other’s lives. It was a rewarding experience that we both gained from and I always looked forward to our Sunday afternoons together.

[T.O.] What have you learned from your mentee? What have you gained out of the experience?

[L.F.] I learned what it meant to be a role model to someone. I was constantly surprised by the fact that weeks later, my mentee would bring something up that I had mentioned in passing and would have given something I said a lot of thought. Moments like that made me realize what kind of impact I was having on her.

[T.O.] What makes a good mentor? Tutor? Which personal qualities do you feel enabled you to excel in both roles?

[L.F.] I think that’s a hard question to answer because there’s no set formula or characteristics that make one person a better tutor/mentor than another. Sure, patience and good listening skills are definitely necessary, but the most important factor, in my opinion, is the relationship built between mentor/mentee or tutor/student. A really successful tutor or mentor, from my perspective, is someone who creates an environment that the child can feel at ease in and establishes a relationship built on trust. That enables the child to feel comfortable to opening up and getting the most out of the program that they’re a part of. That’s what I try to do, anyway.

[T.O.] Though I’m sure, they’re plentiful… what has been the most rewarding experience so far?

[L.F.] In terms of tutoring, the most rewarding experience is always that moment when you see the concepts start to make sense for a student. I love that look they get on their face when all of a sudden; a problem that seemed impossible five minutes ago transforms and becomes clear to them.

Mentoring was a far more complex experience and therefore the rewards were more multifaceted. Like I’ve already mentioned, I loved when she would bring things up that we spoke about in the past, I loved learning how to skate with her since both of us clinging to one another definitely helped build our relationship, and the list goes on and on.

[T.O.] What are some of the issues you’ve helped your mentee overcome?

[L.F.] Friend problems, Mean teachers, Siblings that get on our nerves. Just normal girl problems!

[T.O.] A common misconception is that many people see mentorship programs as solely for troubled youth. In what ways do you feel the value of mentorship extends beyond that?

[L.F.] That’s definitely a misconception! A mentor takes on a role as more of a big brother or big sister, not as a psychologist or as a social worker. I think any young girl can benefit from having an older role model to look up to and that’s exactly what a mentor is there for. Mentors help a child confirm that what they’re going through is normal, they are someone to have fun with and they are there to talk to like one may with any friend.

Mentor - Zoe Polsky

Zoe Polsky

Originally from Calgary, Zoe Polsky came to Montreal to study anatomy and kinesiology at McGill University. She got involved with Ometz and the mentorship program last September after hearing about it through a friend on campus.

[Tikun Olam] How did you first get involved with the Ometz mentoring program?

[Zoe Polsky] After hearing about the mentorship program from through a friend, I met with Janice Heft and had an interview. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to expect. She interviewed me on my interests, age groups I feel I would best relate to, and ended up matching me with a girl who was thirteen at the time.

[T.O.] How much did you know about the girl you were about to mentor?

[Z.P.] I didn’t get a lot of background information; however I feel that by going in somewhat blind, it allowed me to enter the relationship without any preconceived notions. This kind of forced me to build my own impressions, which allowed me to build trust quicker, and identify the areas of her life where she needed a bit more guidance.

[T.O.] I understand you volunteered to many causes back in Calgary. What do you feel makes the Ometz mentorship program unique compared to other youth groups and initiatives?

[Z.P.] It’s definitely a different dynamic. What makes it a wonderful program is how much you actually get to form a personal connection with your mentee and watch them grow.

I feel that this kind of program, and the one-on-one mentoring it offers, is less intimidating then, say, a youth organization where a girl has to find a role model amongst a larger group. That kind of environment doesn’t always favor the shy, more introverted types, and sometimes they don’t receive the guidance or role modeling they need.

[T.O.] Describe the growth you’ve witnessed in your mentee since you began working together.

[Z.P.] I’ve seen a lot of growth and maturity. To be honest, I never expected to watch her mature so quickly, and it’s definitely incredible to see the confidence she’s gained in the process.

[T.O.] What are some of the obstacles you feel you had to overcome to excel as a mentor?

[Z.P.] When I first started, I was determined to discover her problems, and attach them to prescribed solutions. Over time, I realized that there wasn’t necessarily a “root cause” or particular issue to uncover. My mentee just needed female role modeling. Being able to offer her that one-on-one time allowed her personality to shine through.

[T.O.] What has been the highlight of the program for you?

[Z.P.] As cliché as it sounds, there was a point where I was away for the summer and hadn’t seen my mentee for two months. I came back, desperately hoping that there wouldn’t be any back steps. But the second we saw each other again, the moment offered the affirmation I needed to know that our relationship really matters, and that I’ve become an influential component of her life, and her of mine. It was just a really special moment.

[T.O.] Can you offer any advice for people who are considering being a mentor?

[Z.P.] Be patient. Because your relationship might not take flight right off the bat. There are a lot of baby steps along the way. Trust building is essential; and it could take months or years before you even reach that level. Nothing can be forced. You just have to let the relationship evolve organically.

You can learn more about the programs on the Agence Ometz website.

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