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Center Point mentors play key role in learning

POSTED: November 3, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

Millie Plants, a mentor with Center Point Mentor Program, reads a book Thursday with 10-year-old David Garcia, a fifth-grader at Gainesville Exploration Academy, inside the media center.

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On Wednesdays during recess, David Garcia, 10, gladly trades in his fifth-grade playmates for Millie Plants, a retired Gainesville resident.

Soft-spoken and patient, Plants brings David books each week as his mentor in the Center Point Mentor Program.

Plants is one of 284 adults who spend one hour each week mentoring a Gainesville or Hall County student in an effort to boost students’ self-esteem, academic skills and likelihood of graduating from high school.

Huddled over a book in the Gainesville Exploration Academy media center, Plants helps David learn to read big words. Sometimes they play puzzles. Other times after school they eat pizza or go to the park with his brothers and sisters.

But that’s not all Plants does. She also mentors a first-grade girl at Gainesville Exploration Academy.

Plants, who has been a program mentor for 10 years, said the 6-year-old reads quite well, but needs someone to lend an ear.

"There are so many children that just need a friend," Plants said. "There’s a lot of children in the school who have mothers working and no father or both mother and father working, and they don’t get a lot of attention."

According to Center Point Mentor Program coordinator Kate Hoffman, there are more than 400 mentors, including high school students, who spend at least an hour each week with nearly 500 students. Mentors meet with elementary, middle or high school students at their school during the school day.

Center Point Mentor Program is a nonprofit agency started in 1994 to recruit caring adults who want to make a difference in children’s lives. It’s funded by the United Way of Hall County, as well as the city of Gainesville, the Gainesville school board and the Hall County school board, Hoffman said.

While there are hundreds of students with a mentor, there are many others who could use one to help them with their studies or to provide support.

"Just those four words ‘You can do it,’ goes a long way with these children," Hoffman said. "They need an adult in their life who is actually going to listen, not just the mommy listening, you know the uh-huh, uh-huh. When they enter your space, they feel safe and they feel heard, and children really need that."

Hoffman said the program is currently seeking mentors. To become a mentor, a two-hour training session is required. The next one takes place at noon Monday at the Cross Point Mentor Program office across from Gainesville High School.

In addition to being a study buddy, she said mentors can just hang out with kids and talk.

"You can go out to the gym and shoot hoops if you want or go out in the yard and play football," Hoffman said. "They just need that outside voice that models good behavior. (The mentors) are also here to say, ‘That’s uncool; we don’t do that.’"

Hoffman, who has practiced psychotherapy for 10 years, said Center Point’s mission is to help children thrive, to help them care about school and make them feel their school cares about them. Ultimately, the program aims to increase the high school graduation rate in Hall County, which hovers at about 70 percent, Hoffman said.

She said across the board, the children who participated in the mentorship program during the last two years showed at least an 80 percent improvement in various areas that lead to high school graduation, including increased school attendance and academic performance. Hoffman said children also developed better social skills, practiced better behavior and felt their school cared about them as a result of the mentorship.

Parents who think their child needs a mentor can ask their child’s teacher for more information.

Plants said she became involved in the program because she wanted to make a difference in the community.

"The mentoring really hit me because ... my desire for children is for them to love reading," she said. "I figured I could fit my schedule to make one hour a week to be a mentor. I figured I could juggle it on my lunch hour or before I went to work."

Ten years after mentoring Erendida Garcia, who is now a freshman at Gainesville High School, Plants is mentoring David, her younger brother. Plants began mentoring David three years ago when he was in second grade.

By fourth grade, David said he started to like reading because with help from Plants, it wasn’t so difficult.

Plants said she has enjoyed watching David make steady progress in his reading skills. Since she began mentoring Erendida 10 years ago, Plants said she has become close to the Garcia family. In addition to helping her mentees, Plants said she has gained much from the mentoring experience herself.

"I think there is a joy knowing that you’re doing something benefiting someone else," she said. "Getting to know the Garcia family has been an added bonus. ... I’ve fallen in love with the family, I really have."



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