Motivated mentors wanted: Lexington Three looking to expand Panther Pal program

If you have one spare hour a week and the desire to make a difference in the life of a child, Elizabeth Phillips wants to talk to you.

As the mentoring program director for Lexington Three School District, Phillips is hard at work recruiting adults with a compassionate spirit to pair up with at-risk children in the Batesburg-Leesville community. More than 20 kids are currently a part of the Panther Pal Reading Buddies Mentoring Program, but she can easily think of several more who would greatly benefit from a positive adult influence.

“We do have children who are in need of a mentor,” she said.

The Panther Pal program is in its 11th year at Batesburg-Leesville Primary and Batesburg-Leesville Elementary. Students in 5K up to fifth grade are selected based on their reading level and staff recommendations. Volunteers – which range from doctors and lawyers to ministers and retired teachers – then set aside an hour or two a week to simply spend time with the kids and catch up with what’s going on in their lives.

“We’re trying to build relationships,” Phillips said.

The adults are mentors by way of taking the time to listen and converse with their students but they also make sure to focus on the “reading buddy” aspect of the program. Whether a mentor reads aloud to a child during the lunch break at school or encourages the student to read along, each mentor aims to rid students of what can be a seemingly-insurmountable barrier.

As Phillips described, if a child can’t read on the same level as his or her classmates, the obstacle carries over to math, science, history and even comprehension of a teacher’s instruction.

“Focusing on literacy is a key part of a child’s learning,” she said. “We want to stamp out illiteracy.”

More than a decade ago, district leaders saw the high percentage of students who were not reading on grade level. The numbers triggered them to start the mentoring/reading buddy program in an effort to ensure each child, no matter his socioeconomic status, is able to succeed. Phillips thinks the dual approach is helping kids in a substantial way by giving them confidence in themselves and their abilities.

“Once they learn to read, they progress in all other areas,” she said. “That’s why we want to work with younger students who are struggling, too. The earlier we can get them the better.”

In her own mentees, Phillips reports a change by the end of the year. One good sign is children asking for more books to read, something she tries to provide each summer.

Recognizing the mentees for their academic progress is another an important aspect, and Panther Pals have an end-of-the-year gathering where Honor Roll students are rewarded in front of their parents and mentors.

This past spring, current mentors received encouragement in the form of 16 local graduates, all former mentees. They were asked to share how the Panther Pal program aided them personally and agreed that getting their high school diplomas was, in large part, because of the mentors who graciously dedicated time to them.

“They all said how great it was to have someone to talk to and to guide them,” Phillips said. “Some probably wouldn’t have graduated if not for their mentor.”

Boosting literacy is a significant part of the program, but mentors can make just as big an impact just by teaching their student valuable life skills.

“It’s about putting them on the right path,” Phillips said.

From writing thank-you notes to respecting adults to following instructions, the mentors talk about good behavior habits with their students and model those traits. The roles of motivator and encourager are paramount in the relationship, too, as the mentors give the kids vision to the see opportunities that lie ahead and how to take advantage of them.

Phillips said one long-term goal of the program is for students to not only realize their potential and set out to achieve great things but also to return to their hometown and contribute one day. In a school district with a 30 percent poverty level, it’s important to create future-minded kids who feel their big dreams are still attainable.

“We’re trying to make a difference in one person at a time to change things for the better,” Phillips said. “When a child does his best in school academically, he will continue to improve in society and become an asset to the community. Becoming a mentor is one of the best ways that an adult can ensure that the children of our district grow up to be good leaders.”

Evidenced by number of former mentees in the recent graduating class, the program is having an impact academically and socially. Teachers have reported countless stories of positive behavior changes along with improved reading skills for those kids being mentored.

“They voted this as one of the best programs in the district,” Phillips said.

Even after they’ve phased out by moving into middle school or no longer needing a reading buddy, students still benefit from the program. Phillips said that she is one of many mentors who continues friendships with her students long after they’ve been promoted to the next grade.

The list of qualifications for a mentor isn’t long at all, and Phillips encouraged people to give it a try even if they don’t think they’re good with kids.

“You just need to have compassion and care about someone else’s wel-lbeing,” she said.

On Sept. 12, Lexington Three will host a mentors’ dinner and orientation for new recruits at the district office, from 6 to 7 p.m. A SLED background check and application are required for each new mentor.

Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church of Batesburg and St. John’s United Methodist Church of Batesburg are already supporters of the Panther Pal program. If you aren’t able to contribute time to being a mentor but are interested in giving financially, contact Phillips at 960-1005.

Categories: Education, Lexington County