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Helping hand  for boys

Mentoring group seeks volunteers

Even though he’s 59 years old, Sam Rodgers has been harkening back to his teen years these days.

The Leverett woodworker coordinates the Pioneer Valley’s two “Boys to Men” groups, in which 26 boys ages 13 to 17 gather with nearly a dozen volunteer mentors like himself. The program, which started about 15 years ago in San Diego and has spawned chapters around the country, as well as Canada, Germany and South Africa, aims to support and encourage boys through the challenges of adolescence and discovery of manhood.

For the 12 teens who meet every other Sunday in journeymen’s groups, or ‘j-groups,’ to play Frisbee, or soccer, or engage in other fun pastimes, the four-hour gatherings provide an opportunity to share moments together while exploring relationships in a genuine way that society doesn’t for provide males without lots of opportunities.

“I didn’t have any adult males in my life,” said Rodgers, who grew up in a large family where his father was present but not easily accessible. “I think an awful lot of teenage boys feel alone. It’s hard growing up.”

J-group member Noah Koester, 17, of Northfield and Warwick, says, “In today’s culture, we’re taught to fit in, to blend in, to not stand out unless you’re awesome, like a star athlete or star musician. (Male teens) don’t feel anybody has time for them, because they don’t feel they have anything to offer, because that’s what’s beaten into them.”

Koester says he’s gained confidence over his four years in the Greenfield program with the help of adult volunteers who demonstrate by authentically sharing their own struggles, often uncovered by attending a “Reclaiming Your Teenage Fire” workshop held annually.

For Rodgers, like a lot of the men who volunteer to be mentors, “being part of this is helping other kids not having to go through the pain I went through, so our kids will be taken care of in a healthy, productive way and not just left on their own to sort of stumble, just to have a man in their corner to say, ‘Way to go!’ or ask, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ or ‘What’s your story?’

For Rodgers, volunteering to join Boys to Men about three years ago seemed like a natural outgrowth of his participation in a men’s group.

“I think there’s a big gap between the generations,” he says. “Boys don’t get to be with men, and men are intimidated by boys. We get together and we give each other a lot.”

Daniel Yalowitz of Greenfield, a psychologist who has been consulting with Boys to Men-New England for a couple of years, says the program is less concerned than Scouting programs would be about training skills, but it instead focuses on relationships and communication.

“It’s about helping them develop confidence and awareness of themselves, in the context of others,” says Yalowitz, who would like to build the ranks of mentors from a ratio of 2:1 to 3:2 or even 1:1. Although there’s no certificate or specific training to become a mentor – though a criminal offender record information (CORI) background check and interview process is required to guard against abuse – the first of what’s expected to be several all-day training sessions for mentors is planned for Nov. 17 in Somerville.

“What we’re looking for in mentors are people willing to be authentic, who are willing to share themselves and their lives openly, and willing to share their time. The training’s helpful, for sure, but it’s not like you need to be a child development expert.”

Koester says Boys to Men “lets you be yourself, and lets you see that that’s OK. (The mentors) do that by example. The men in the program live the same way; they’re very happy with their lives, or if they’re not, they’re open about it and say, ‘I’m not liking the way I’m handling this situation. All the men have had some challenge, some issue growing up, and that’s what made them who they are, and they show that ... It’s powerful in a way that you don’t realize when somebody is very real with you.”

That honesty works both ways in the groups, says Rodgers.

“We’re about accepting them for who they are, listening to them, modeling for behavior and praising them for what we see in them. Our role isn’t to give them advice; it’s to help them feel OK about themselves by being in their corner.”

The mentors gain insights about their own teen passions and how they have continued to affect them as adults, from an annual “Reclaiming Your Teenage Fire” training.

“For me, I got to remember what it really felt like, and how I reacted, and look at my life now and say, ‘Wow! I still do some of that stuff that I did back then to protect my heart! Whether it’s anger or vulnerability, I’ll just shut up and be quiet. Or shut down. That’s how I survived as a teenager, and it became part of my life. Why is that still dragging around? It freed me; I feel there’s a lot more self-acceptance, because I’m not hiding from that or playing that game anymore.”

The teens share their own “Rite-of Passage Adventure Weekend” each spring in Dummerston, Vt., where they can feel safe to discover their inner feelings.

Then, together, the teens and their mentors share time twice a month that Yalowitz says “contradicts all the distress that we have growing up. The media, advertising, our parents, our adult models, put out messages that tells us, ‘Don’t cry,’ ‘You’ve got to be strong,’ ...We’re given these messages that rob us of our humanity. And little by little, it separates boys from themselves, from each other, from girls, because we’re taught boys do this, girls do that. There is an attempt is to put Humpty Dumpty together again, to recover our humanity. It’s about becoming full again.”

More information about Boys to Men is available from Rodgers at samrodgers@wildblue.net or by calling 413-367-2447

On the Web:

www.boystomennewengland.org

www.boystomen.org

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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