Kids Hope USA gaining momentum for at-risk children in Wilkes County
Wilkes County’s students are already experiencing positive effects from the Kids Hope USA mentor program which started in January at the primary and elementary schools. For over 20 years this program, which stretches across the nation into 33 states, has served to build up at-risk children in all areas of life from academics to self-esteem.
Kids Hope USA “offers churches and schools a proven, award-winning model to meet the emotional, social, and academic needs of children” by creating one-on-one mentoring relationships between adult church members – willing to give a little time and a lot of love – and at-risk children in their community who desperately need caring adults in their lives, which is facilitated through a church-school partnership.
A recent visit from Georgia’s Program Support Coordinator Mary Lou Heaner saw an encouraging report on the progress Wilkes County’s branch of Kids Hope USA is making.
“This program is all over the country, so it’s a proven program at this point, but I believe it will be a great addition to the [Wilkes County] community, and a blessing to a lot of children,” Heaner said. “While this is very new in the school, W-WPS Principal Janet Pharr shared with me that faithfulness has been the key to this program. This is an established ministry that involves dedicated relationships that are carried over many years.”
Since its induction into the system, Pharr concurred that “It’s just been a wonderful experience for everyone – the children love it, and the mentors have been outstanding.”
Unlike the larger schools Heaner is accustomed to visiting, the coordinator remarked that she doesn’t always have the opportunity to speak with school principals due to size and their schedules, and complimented, “This was really a treat to visit Wilkes county, everyone was just really warm.”
The Kids Hope USA program was brought to Wilkes County thanks to former educator Kelli Eisler, however the program has been spearheaded by both Eisler and Mandy Jackson, who act as co-directors of the program.
“My experience with it came from being a fifth-grade teacher in Gwinnett County, so the program was introduced to me probably around 2011 or 2012 as an educator, and I was referring children to the program who were at-risk,” Eisler said.
As Kids Hope is based in Michigan, when Eisler found out that the program wasn’t in Wilkes County, she got in touch with coordinators at headquarters on how to bring the initiative here.
“You only get mentors through a church, so I met with Pastor Kevin Madden [of Washington First Baptist] last February, and asked him to pray about it and if he would consider having his church as the home base – the affiliate church connected to the program,” Eisler said. “After about two months of meetings and praying, and meeting with the people from Michigan, he agreed.”
Since that point, nine mentors have undergone thorough training, along with background checks, and have been placed with Wilkes County students, all the while adhering to Kids Hope USA’s mission of “One Child, One Hour, One Church, One School.”
One mentor focuses solely on one child and their individual academic and emotional growth by dedicating one hour of their time, one day a week, for this purpose. Eisler included that “It’s very, very important that we match the right mentor with the right child – it’s critical.”
According to Eisler, this hour focuses on school work, but also incorporates games and self-esteem building exercises, which complement the overall goal – and reason for Kids Hope USA’s creation – which is to increase graduation rates by detecting at-risk children, and employing early intervention.
Given the program’s faith-based foundation, “we have to be careful not to cross the church-and-state law, so it’s not that we’re out there ministering to children,” Eisler cautioned. “But, Kids Hope really feels that you’re going to get your best mentors from a church of people who are strong Christians, and their hearts are in the right place.
“There is no religion brought into it, but the backbone of Kids Hope USA is every mentor has a [trained] prayer partner,” Eisler continued. “So behind the scenes there is a person praying for me and my student very intentionally.”
As the program progresses into the semester, more and more children are being referred to the program, and more mentors are need. While they don’t have to be a member of First Baptist Church, they must have a strong referral, and go through training with the church as it is the home base for the program.
“Our goal is within a year to really have about 25 mentors within the school, and really move on into the middle school,” Eisler said.
Since Kids Hope USA has over 20 years backing its success in changing the lives of countless students, many adults who underwent mentoring through the program have reported that they would not be where they are today had it not have been for Kids Hope USA and their mentors.
As far as Wilkes County is concerned, “all the mentors here are starting to see significant changes, and even the faculty is seeing significant changes in these children,” Eisler said. “It is a very strong, successful program.”