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Mentors help youth reach their goals

April Wilsey and her mentor Jan Parta have been matched since Wilsey was in fifth grade. She is now a senior, and hopes to become a mentor herself in the future. Connie Vandermay/Focus

April Wilsey was in fifth grade when she first met up with her mentor, Jan Parta, through Perham's Kinship program.

Now, seven years later, Wilsey is a senior at Perham High School, looking forward to prom, graduation and heading off to college.

"You have made some huge strides," Parta told Wilsey in a joint interview last week.

For example, Wilsey's grades and attitude in school have greatly improved through the years, and she has learned to push herself to try things she once thought were impossible.

Wilsey largely credits these strides to the amazing amount of support she's received from people in the school system, as well as her mentor family.

"I needed that extra support away from home," Wilsey said.

Kinship coordinator Jill Shipman said in a separate interview that Wilsey is considered a success case. It's because of her and other kids like her that the Perham Kinship program continues to this day.

Kinship has been in Perham since 1996. This year, the program oversees 38 adult-child matches, but there are just as many kids waiting for a mentor. To date, the program could use an additional 40 mentors to ensure all area youth in need reach their full potential.

Once mentors are matched with a child, the duo spends a couple of hours together twice a month. All mentors are asked to commit to the program for at least one year. Kids in the program are between the ages of five and 17.

Shipman said activities the kids and their mentors can do together are endless. Whether it's fishing, gardening, canoeing, playing board games or baking, Shipman said, "The activities shared are not as important as the time spent and relationship built."

Wilsey and Parta, for example, often end up at the Partas' residence on an area lake. And through the last several years, both have made many happy memories.

It was in the Partas' garage, around Halloween, when Wilsey was in sixth grade, that she carved her first pumpkin. And, a few years later, it was with the Parta family that Wilsey was given her first birthday party, at the age of 14.

The party at Pizza Ranch "was perfectly awesome," Wilsey recalls.

One of their first 'dates' was spent together at the Perham Area Community Center Pool. It was there, with Parta by her side, that Wilsey took her first steps. Born with a disease that slows muscle development, Wilsey was not yet walking in fifth grade.

Now, thanks in part to the work she and Parta have put in over the years, it's her hope to walk across the stage at graduation without the use of her crutches.

Memories like these are just some of the reasons to become a mentor. Parta originally became involved after concerned teachers in the Perham-Dent School District approached her, and explained how Wilsey would benefit from a strong-willed mentor. One that would be firm with her, yet encourage her to try different experiences. They felt like Wilsey needed a little extra support to push her in the right direction.

Whatever the case may be, Shipman said, "A good mentor is any person who wants to make a difference in a child's life."

Mentors help children boost their self-esteem and school attendance. Often, a mentored child's "grades improve and high school graduation becomes a reality," Shipman said.

Wilsey, for example has accomplished many things she never thought were possible -- like swimming, canoeing and learning to try new foods.

"She (Parta) gets me to eat things that I would never have tried," Wilsey said.

Benefits are not limited to the mentee. Parta has learned how to be more patient, while at the same time seen the importance of being firm. She has learned some skills, too, as Wilsey has taught her how to do various things on the computer.

Perhaps the biggest benefit for mentors and mentees alike is that, "most relationships last a lifetime," Shipman said.

Parta and Wilsey plan to continue to get together through Wilsey's college years. After she graduates this spring, Wilsey plans on attending college in Fergus Falls.

"I'm definitely ready for college," she said with a confident nod.

Wilsey has a specific goal in mind when she thinks of her future: "I want to be as independent as possible, move out on my own and become a history teacher."

And because she has experienced the benefits of a mentorship program first hand, Wilsey hopes to give back someday: "After I graduate (from college), I would like to move back and be a mentor."

Connie Vandermay is a reporter for the Perham Focus, a publication of Forum News Service.