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Diocesan Mentoring Program Doesn’t Let COVID-19 Block Contact with Kids in Need

May 29, 2020

Path To Shine®, a mentoring program of the Diocese of Atlanta serving young at-risk children, was threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic shut-down.

Founding Director Deacon Lesley-Ann Drake said the need to shelter in place effectively closed the program built on personal contact between mentors and their children.

But, Drake, an Episcopal Deacon, and the board of directors of 10 years Path To Shine® (PTS) were determined to continue serving children at the program’s 17 locations. So, at a March 15, brainstorming meeting they came up with new ways to continue helping their kids.

“Realizing that nearly all the children in our program receive free or reduced lunch at school, the Board approved my request to provide each family with a $100 grocery store gift card,” Drake said. “Within 24 hours we had communicated with the volunteer leadership team and within a week, cards were being delivered to our families.”

Two weeks later the board decided to give a second round of grocery store gift cards, Drake said.

“We have given out 213 $100 cards so far,” she said. Most school systems have done a lot of good work to provide meals for the families in need “but in many cases the families with whom we work could not get to the schools where food was being distributed.”

Although PTS mentors could not meet with their children in person, they decided to stay in contact with phone calls and letters. Initial response was a lot of silence!

“We learned that a call from an unfamiliar number is likely to be ignored, and, calls cost money on many phone plans whereas texting is free,” she said. “Once our mentors began texting, they were more likely to receive a response.”

In another learning experience, many mentors sent cards or letters, but didn’t initially think to include self-addressed, stamped envelopes and paper for the child’s response. “Once these items were included there were more responses with some sweet notes and pictures,” Drake said.

Many of the PTS children are Hispanic, so Drake enlisted the Operations Manager Christopher McAbee, who is bi-lingual, to help mentors by translating their text messages and notes, as well as acting as a translator for phone conversations.

Between March 15 and May 1, Path To Shine® volunteers had 526 contacts (text, calls, letters, cards) with their mentees.

Other Challenges

At the end of each semester PTS gives three brand new books to every child in the program; usually during the last program meeting in May. This year PTS delivered the books to the children’s homes. That meant delivering 655 books to the programs 189 children with a few extra books for older siblings who are previous PTS children.

Another accommodation to COVID-19 was to the tradition of giving each 5th grade child who was graduating from the PTS program a certificate, some school supplies, and a $25 bookstore gift card.

“We had 27 graduates this year, but instead of giving them the gift card, we gave each child an IOU. The gift cards can be used online, Drake said, but we know the importance of going to a large bookstore, and how that experience can expand the children’s worldview.”

And, it gives the mentors another opportunity to be in touch with their children once in-store shopping is safe again to work out a plan to get each child to a bookstore.

The Board approved additional money for mentors to provide children with additional supplies such as workbooks, magazines, art supplies, and journals.

Each of the PTS program site also came up with ideas for maintaining their relationship with the children:

– Five families (with eight children) were given hands-on building or science kits from Kiwi Co.

– Ten children received a hand-made summer quilt.

– One child loves Pokémon so his mentor bought a pack of Pokémon cards and is including a couple of them in each weekly letter.

– Four children received pots, soil and seedlings to grow a tomato plant. The children sent photos back to their Mentors noting how they will care for their plants.

– Two programs delivered Easter baskets full of goodies to 25 children at their homes.

– Mentors have begun to record stories of their experiences during the pandemic pause to PTS, and some of their stories are posted on the website and shared once a week on the Facebook page.

In total PTS recorded 590 deliveries of items between March 15th and May 1st.

The Path To Shine® Way

PTS was founded on the belief that elementary school children living in poverty need caring, committed mentors and tutors to encourage them to find their own paths to becoming successful adults.

From one location in 2019 with a handful of children, Path to Shine has grown to 17 locations in middle and north Georgia where dedicated volunteers serve more than 180 children.

With an intentional 2:1 ratio of children to adults, the program creates significant effect by matching children with volunteers who become steady and trusted presences in the children’s lives. PTS intentionally serves small groups of children (no more than 20 – 25 per location) that meet once a week, Drake said.

“Although it’s tempting to go out and find hundreds of children, I’m very clear that lots of smaller programs are more beneficial than one big program,” Drake said. “With smaller programs, you get to know the children and the children get to know the volunteers. You get to know the families. There is a level of deeper connection, and you build trust.”

Path To Shine also places great importance on the volunteer experience. It provides multi-faceted training for all volunteers, covering topics such as mentoring, effective listening, diversity, and methods for helping children improve their reading skills. PTS volunteers range from high school students and retired teachers to working adults across a wide range of professions. “One of the things that we learned very early on with Path To Shine is that volunteers need training. Anyone who is going to volunteer for anything needs tools and needs to feel safe and competent,” explained Drake. Another Episcopal Deacon, retired educator Edith W. Woodling, helped Drake with developing curriculum and volunteer training.

Predictability is critical to fostering a sense of trust and safety. For many Path To Shine students, the program’s routine provides a gentle opportunity to participate without fear of being wrong or judged.

A PTS session includes quiet time for volunteers to work with children one-on-one or in small groups. Mentors work with the same students each week, helping with homework, reading together, and catching up on the week’s events. Snack and playtime are also valuable parts of the program. Another key element is structured group time. Through stories told using books or by hearing from guest speakers, group time is an opportunity to practice attentive listening and comprehension and learn valuable life skills.

And, PTS recognizes that a child can only learn so much in the classroom. Outside experiences and adventures that many kids take for granted are out of the ordinary for Path To Shine children. A PTS outing to a horse stable, a museum, or a Braves baseball game provides these children a rare opportunity to experience something new.

Adult mentors must commit to an entire school year, and many have volunteered for four or more years. PTS offers on-site training for mentors and program directors its own curriculum focusing on life skills, positive character traits, and goal setting. The program for elementary school children, is completely free for participants.

Financial support for PTS comes from volunteers, local churches and an annual Share the Love campaign each February which support the local programs and allows enrichment of kids’ lives with fun and educational excursions.

In January 2015, Path To Shine was recognized by The Episcopal Church for its work with under-served children by being designated a Jubilee Ministry Center. The designation is a validation of Path To Shine’s work with communities by empowering and encouraging children to strive toward hope-filled dreams.

For information about this and other Community-Based Ministries of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, contact Community Engagement Director, Don Plummer at