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Another Voice: Investing time with a child can pay dividends

By Patty Szwed

There’s a simple way that I know that I’m making a big difference as a mentor – my cellphone doesn’t ring as much as it used to.

When I was first matched as a “big sister” to Reina, she would phone me over and over to make sure I was really coming to spend time with her. If I told her I’d pick her up at noon on Saturday, she’d call Friday, and then several times on Saturday morning just to make sure I was on my way.

Today, more than a year later, my 11-year-old “little sister,” who lives with her grandfather, doesn’t call to confirm. I’m pretty sure that’s because she knows she can count on me to do what I say I’ll do. We’ve developed stability and trust in our relationship that I believe will be a lasting source of strength and confidence for Reina as she matures into a young woman striving to succeed in school and preparing for a promising future.

I got involved with the Big Brother Big Sister program through Mentoring Matters, an effort funded and supported through my employer, First Niagara, which partners with nonprofits to help encourage and support mentoring efforts. Hundreds of employees like me have been introduced to mentoring and the difference it can make for children facing challenging circumstances.

For me, affirmation that mentoring really does matter reveals itself often in Reina’s easy smile, the increasingly confident way she carries herself when she joins me on our many adventures and her improving performance at school.

Research affirms what I see firsthand. Students who meet frequently with a mentor are 52 percent less likely to skip a day of school and 46 percent less likely to start using drugs. Meanwhile, mentored students are 55 percent more likely to enroll in college and 81 percent more likely to participate in sports or extracurricular activities.

In a recent study, researchers from University of Georgia found that mentoring can literally improve a child’s health. African-American kids who have the emotional support of mentors did not share the same elevated risk factors as their peers for a range of chronic illnesses.

It’s not just the kids who benefit. The magic of mentoring is that the adults involved gain unexpected rewards as well. I’ve learned a lot from Reina and look forward to our time together.

When I think of all the good that comes from mentoring, I’m reminded of a favorite quote from Colin Powell’s wife, Alma: “There is no better investment of time and money than in the life of a child. They are the future.”

When Reina calls me these days, it’s just to talk – not to double and triple check that I’ll show up. That is all I need to be assured that my time with her is one of the best investments I’ve ever made.

Patty Szwed is a senior human resources generalist at First Niagara Bank and a volunteer mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Erie County.