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Project Coach Aims to Reinvent Mentoring Program in Springfield

BOSTON — When Gov. Charlie Baker issued stay-at-home guidance in mid-March, hundreds of mentoring and youth-serving programs across the state immediately faced a daunting challenge: how to keep mentors and mentees connected in a meaningful way while requiring strict social distancing.

Mass Mentoring Partnership (MMP) is a statewide capacity-building organization that provides critical support to a network of more than 370 mentoring and youth-serving programs from Boston to Pittsfield. To support the field in the midst of the growing COVID-19 crisis, MMP responded in a number of ways: by conducting research in the field to identify the most critical needs; offering free training in timely topics like trauma-informed practice and family and caregiver engagement; advocating for specific COVID-19 legislation that will provide necessary support to families particularly hard-hit by the pandemic; and offering fun, virtual activities that can be enjoyed by mentors and their mentees.

MMP recently analyzed the survey of the field and found the results to be troubling, yet not surprising. Programs reported that the vast majority of families had difficulties keeping their children connected to their mentors; most reported a lack of access to tech devices, as well as problems with wi-fi connectivity. Seventy-five percent also indicated that families were simply too overwhelmed to maintain that connection.

Project Coach is a popular mentoring program in Springfield that matches students at Smith College with local high-school students, providing academic support as well as training on becoming a sport coach and mentor. These teens in turn help local elementary students with homework and offer after-school sports and enrichment programming.

According to Erin DeCou, coordinator of the Urban Education Initiative and Project Coach at Smith College, the mentoring team shifted quickly in April to support matches virtually. For the remainder of the school year, Project Coach hosted the Virtual Academic Coaching Academy every Tuesday, bringing together students and educators to share high-impact leadership skills that lead to success in school and life. On Thursdays, they sponsored an all-team meeting that included panel discussions with community leaders covering a range of topics. These Zoom calls included teens and their families, and discussions focused on the community response to the COVID-19 epidemic, leadership in challenging times, and what teens can do to contribute, lead, and learn.

Project Coach is currently communicating with the Springfield school district about how to best support students this fall, pending further details on school reopening.

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