Mentors helping Cache kids choose
alternatives to gangs and despair
By Brock Anderson
April 24, 2006 | Shaggy-haired and looking for acceptance,
12-year-old "Jimmy" was not happy.
Jimmy, a sixth grade student in the Cache County School
District, was trying to find out who he was. Wearing
baggy pants that hung well below his waist, shirts two
sizes too big and lots of chains, Jimmy thought that
life in a gang might be the perfect place for him.
Four months later, Jimmy got a haircut. He got rid
of his gold chains and baggy pants, as well as his aspiration
to join a gang. Jimmy goes to school and does his homework
now. His grades have improved.
This change in lifestyle had nothing to do with his
parents or teachers. Jimmy changed because of one Utah
State University student's influence.
Jimmy is only one of thousands who have been positively
influenced by a mentor. Organizations not only in Cache
Valley but throughout Utah and the United States are
working to provide mentors for kids in need.
Bryce King, a 22-year-old sophomore parks and recreation
management major at Utah State, has been mentoring at
a local junior high since last fall. He saw an ad in
the Statesman and applied because he originally
wanted to go into social work and thought it would give
him good experience in his field.
Although King has since changed his major, he still
enjoys mentoring 13-year-old "Greg." But it hasn't always
"When I first started meeting with him I thought
he wanted to kill me," King said. "It was
hard to get a word out of him about anything."
King said Greg didn't fit in well with his classmates.
On the afternoon of their original meeting, King learned
that he was the first person that said anything to Greg
"It was kind of a shocker at first because it
made me realize that this kid didn't even get a 'good
morning' from his family."
But Greg reminded King of someone else: himself.
"When I first met him he sort of reminded me
of what I looked like in middle school," King said.
"I wasn't ever the most popular kid in any of the
schools that I went to. I was the sort of kid that kind
of just tagged along in any group even though I didn't
Growing up, King's father was in the military. From
Arizona to Texas, Colorado and Washington, D.C., King
has always been on the move. He even lived in England
"Having a mentor would have helped me gain more confidence
in myself and my school life," he said.
King and Greg meet every Thursday from 3 to 5 p.m.
The first hour they work on Greg's homework. The second
hour they do whatever Greg wants. King said a trust
and friendship has developed between them.
Jimmy and Greg are only a couple of students that
have been influenced by mentors in the Cache County
"We have seen great success in a short time," said
Melia Balls, project director of the Cache County School
District mentoring program.
Mentoring is an after-school program. The Cache County
School District received a grant to implement the mentoring
program in fall 2004, and now have about 50 people mentoring.
For an hour or two each week mentors meet with fourth
through eighth grade students who applied for the program.
Students seeking to have a mentor must be referred
by themselves, a teacher, parent, or school counselor.
Balls said students have mentors for various reasons.
Some come from single-parent homes, while others are
trying to deal with emotional stress, like a death in
the family. Others have parents who both work, so they
want someone to interact with after school.
Now that the program is starting to grow, Balls said
many students want to sign up just because they see
their friends having a positive experience with a mentor.
"Sometimes they're called at-risk, but we like
to say they're on the brink of success," Balls
said about the students. "Ultimately we want to
get the students to the point where they want to succeed
However, Balls also said that there's more to mentoring
than just raising GPA's. "Mentoring is about the
King says that being a mentor has given him the opportunity
to give Greg a better middle school experience than
"I am there to be a role model and an example,"
King said. "I am there to support and encourage.
In my eyes the mentoring program is not about passing
classes, but recognizing how setting goals in education
and life can have an effect on your life now and in
Barbara Drake of the Utah Mentoring Partnership in
Salt Lake City, said that student progress in the mentoring
program depends on the relationship they have with their
"Some [relationships] have lasted for many years,
and those are the ones that can really have long-term
benefits," Drake said. "But any time spent with
a child can make a tremendous difference."
Drake said mentoring helps students in many ways.
It helps increase students' confidence academically
and socially. Also, delinquent behaviors decrease, school
attendance improves, and tobacco use decreases when
students have mentors.
King has seen significant changes in Greg since last
"When I first met him he was failing all of his classes,
but now he is passing at least one," King said. "You
may say that that is not much improvement, but it's
a start. And when he can recognize that he can do it,
then you know that the change has taken place.
Through mentoring, King said, Greg has also started
to interact and fit in better with his peers.
"The first couple of months that I went out there
to mentor, [he] always was by himself," King said. "Now
when I go out there he has friends around him doing
homework, or even better, just interacting with him."
King and Greg are working now on succeeding, rather
than just trying.
"When we try we never finish, but when we have
the goal to succeed we always complete the tasks at
For more information on becoming a mentor, contact
Melia Balls at (435) 757-0139 or firstname.lastname@example.org.