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Mentorship opportunities still available even with the COVID-19 restrictions

Though COVID-19 has changed the way the STARS mentoring program can operate, the need for mentors still remains in the community, according to the program’s coordinator.

Mary Jo Volkman said mentors can meet with their mentees via phone or an online platform such as Zoom or Google Meets, and she is also planning safe, no contact group events.

So far this year, she has organized Zoom bingo, an outdoor scavenger hunt and take-and-bake pizzas. Some other ideas she is thinking of for group activities include Disney trivia and valentines kits, in which participants can make valentines to later be delivered to area nursing homes. Group events are every six to eight weeks.

The STARS program serves youth and families in Freeborn County and the eastern portion of Faribault County with students from the Albert Lea, Alden-Conger, Glenville-Emmons and United South Central school districts.

Penny Jacobsen, one of the mentors, said she has enjoyed working with the sixth- and eighth-grade girls she mentors.

Jacobsen is a retired speech language clinician and used to work with children in the schools. Once she retired, she decided to volunteer in the classroom. Now she volunteers through STARS.

She said she enjoys interacting with children, and this is her way of doing so.

Jacobsen said she had actually met the older girl she mentors when she was in kindergarten, but they signed on officially with the program about four years ago to participate in the group activities.

“When she was in second grade, she said to me one day, ‘Will you still be my friend when I’m in high school?’ I said, ‘I certainly hope so,’” Jacobsen said. “Now, she is in high school and even though she’s busy enough with sports and church — I feel she doesn’t really need a mentor — but she still wants to be friends.”

Jacobsen said before the COVID-19 pandemic, she and the two girls, who are sisters, enjoyed playing checkers and dominos, as well as outdoor yard games at her house. They would often go to a park or explore at Myre-Big Island State Park.

With restrictions in place for safety because of the pandemic, this year they have utilized telephone and outdoor meetings, following social distancing and safety guidelines. On nice days they have gone for walks. She said she tries to have a phone conversation at least once a week with the two sisters.

Aside from the friendship, Jacobsen said the mentoring has given the girls, who are from a Karen family, more experience learning about American traditions in her home.

“I think it’s a worthwhile thing to do,” she said. “I get as much benefit from it as the children do, that’s for sure.”

Volkman said there is currently a greater need for more male mentors, though female mentors are invited to participate, as well. Mentors go through an interview process and background check before being approved for the position.

If people are interested in becoming a mentor or signing their children up for a mentor, they should call Volkman at 507-383-5272.