• Guest column: YouthFriends volunteers have done much

  • I’ve recently felt as though a very close friend died. I’m in mourning over the death of my beloved YouthFriends. What an outstanding program it was!

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  • I’ve recently felt as though a very close friend died. I’m in mourning over the death of my beloved YouthFriends. What an outstanding program it was!
    Although I applaud the Independence School District’s decision to create its own volunteer mentoring program and I know Ali Kisner will do a great job, it just won’t be the same. It won’t be the same because it won’t have the name it’s had for nearly 20 wonderful years: YouthFriends. And that makes me sad.
    I retired as the Independence YouthFriends coordinator in May 2010, and I still hold fond memories of its glory days in my heart. YouthFriends began in the Kansas City area in 1995 in six school districts on both sides of the state line: Center, Independence, North Kansas City, Raytown, Shawnee Mission and Kansas City, Kan. Initially, it was a three-year pilot program under the auspices of the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, which funneled the start-up support from the Amelior Foundation on the East Coast. Amelior’s leader, Ray Chambers, was a believer in mentoring programs and wanted to try funding one in a different part of the country. He selected the Kansas City area because of its reputation for outstanding children’s programming.
    Given recent local events, it’s interesting that the YouthFriends program was originally overseen by the Greater Kansas City YMCA. After a few years, however, each district took over its own YouthFriends program. I was one of the first six school district coordinators. In the early years we embodied the metaphor of building a plane in flight. However, when YouthFriends Central was created as the governing body things vastly changed. It managed the screening of volunteers and provided all marketing and training materials. YouthFriends Central had a phenomenal CEO and a staff of highly accomplished people who, through their oversight, made sure the YF brand was protected and that the program in all the districts maintained the same policies, procedures and practices. In addition, they offered high-quality training and moral support to the school district coordinators.
    YouthFriends Central continued to add more school districts every year, and the program grew. Independence YouthFriends was always particularly powerful among all the districts. We were generally at the top in number of volunteers and, more importantly, in volunteer retention. People signed up and stayed on. The community response here was phenomenal!
    The volunteer roster read like a “Who’s Who” of Eastern Jackson County. My mantra then was “The best people in Independence are YouthFriends volunteers.” Overall, they were people with big hearts who cared about kids and the future of the community. Many of them from the ’90s are still generously volunteering their time.
    Superintendent Bob Watkins was part of the original leadership team that worked with the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation to establish the program. Bob was critical to YouthFriends’ success. His legacy of support, from the top down, continued with Superintendents David Rock and Jim Hinson. All three of these fine gentlemen were YouthFriends themselves.
    Page 2 of 2 - The individual stories about the impact of the volunteers on kids’ lives are innumerable. I could fill a book with the ones I’ve heard. I know, however, that there are many more poignant stories out there that volunteers have kept in their hearts and, with characteristic humility, never shared with me. God bless those great folks who managed to be in a school one hour a week. Although it doesn’t seem like much time to donate, it’s very significant for youngsters who need a little extra attention or academic enrichment. YouthFriends has research to prove that.
    I saw adults’ lives literally transformed because of their volunteering. People who thought they were too old or too reserved to relate well to kids found they were big hits when matched with the right children. People, who were not the most eager to be volunteers, but felt social pressure to sign up, became some of the biggest supporters of the program because they had so much fun.
    It is with a great deal of sadness that I see the name YouthFriends pass away. Being in the Independence pilot’s seat was a great ride. It was all the more enjoyable and exhilarating because of the phenomenal help I received from Kay Cox, in the early years, and Joyce Wolfe and Jan Wood in the later years as the program grew and flourished. What tremendous women!
    Goodbye, YouthFriends! Hang in there, Independence volunteers and stay the course with your students. Don’t give up on volunteering. Thanks for the memories.

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