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Mentoring can help child development

Kinship Reading Buddies Joyce LaFrance and Kynly Hallerstrom enjoy lunch at Century School before spending some time reading. (Anna Erickson / Enterprise)

By Nick Longworth

As people grow emotionally they will inevitably progress through many different stages of development in their lifetime.

From good times to bad, throughout many of these stages, it can be argued that friendships and other healthy interpersonal relationships are an invaluable part of living a happy and healthy life. These very friendships become increasingly important during a child’s developmental years.

In Park Rapids lives a youth community that is no exception to these human conditions.

Some professionals and volunteers around the community would like to help foster the youth of this community.

Danielle Norby is the owner of A Better Connection Inc., a private, mental health practice located in Park Rapids.

After obtaining a master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota-Moorhead, in September of 2010 she became a Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW). Then, by following 4,000 hours of clinical supervision, she obtained her Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) in October of 2012.

She believes that every human relationship is built upon a foundation of trust and its importance in a child’s development cannot be understated.

“Trust with a caregiver is one of the first lessons we learn as people, and these early experiences provide the foundation for our ability to develop relationships the rest of our lives,” said Norby.

“In our first early experiences learning to trust we have a foundation for healthy, trusting relationships. But when children do not have this healthy foundation, it makes making future relationships difficult,” Norby said.

Norby began working during the summer of 2007, when she organized a community support program in Cottonwood County that served children.

“I began working in the field following a summer internship. My parents began providing foster care and respite care services shortly after my internship and we adopted my youngest brother when he was three years old; he is eight years old now,” Norby said.

“My brother had difficulty trusting adults upon arrival and his ability to form healthy relationship with others has significantly improved. (In my internship) through the use of grant money, the children were able to experience water parks, amusement parks, Vikings training camp, Twins games and other events and activities. Many of these very children experienced a broken attachment with one, or both, parents/caregivers.”

Through A Better Connection, Norby is now able to provide psychotherapeutic services for individuals of all ages, specializing specifically in “play therapy” usually involving children, but can also take place with adults who have a history of childhood trauma.

Norby offers “Incredible Years” parenting groups to support children in their social-emotional growth, “Play Therapy” with younger children to resolve trauma and encourage healthy brain development, “Structured Psychotherapy” for adolescents responding to chronic stress and the “total transformation program” parenting program for managing challenging behaviors in children and teenagers (the program can be learned on a group or individual basis. The techniques learned can also be used by daycare providers, teachers, and other professionals who work with children and teenagers.)

Norby knows that not every child is the same; special attention is necessary for each and every one.

“A variety of therapeutic techniques are used during individual, family, and group psychotherapy depending all on different needs. Not all children have insecure attachment types, but the children who usually do typically have a broken, or insecure attachment to caregivers, and often have difficult behaviors. Some negative behaviors are the child’s way of communicating and surviving,” Norby said. 

“For example, if a child ‘hits’ an adult upon ‘goodbye’ they might be telling the caregiver that he/she cares about the adult and will miss them greatly. The child may be simply ‘testing’ the adult to see if they will abandon them and further clarify the fact that the child cannot trust adults in their life. We can help children learn to build trusting relationships and ultimately reduce the number of difficult behaviors by replacing them with appropriate response and social skills,” Norby said.

Alongside Norby’s A Better Connection is the Kinship program of Park Rapids, pairing children referred to it with adult “mentors” of who might share a similar interest and provide a positive influence in their life.

Although not directly affiliated with the Kinship program, Norby sees the non-professional help from mentors as a great benefit to children.

“A mentor is a trusted adult friend with a long-term and consistent commitment to providing friendship and guidance to a youth. It’s all about being friends, sharing common interests, and being exposed to new interests. There is a lot more to Kinship than trusting relationships, but healthy relationships seem to be the ‘root’ of the program,” Norby said.

“Our community’s future rests on the hopes of our children and youth. Our future work force depends on preparing our children with adequate education and social skills sufficient to meet demands. Every child deserves a responsible and concerned adult who will provide guidance and support, help them set and accomplish goals and act as a positive role model,” Norby said.

The Kinship program provides the foundation for both the adult mentor and child to form a relationship by providing social events for the pairing to use to their benefit.

“Every month we sponsor recreational activities that are optional for both the mentor and child if they are interested and it works in their schedule. With help from other community organizations we are able to hold these fun events such as a swim party, sledding, ice skating, packaging food for kids against hunger, or carving pumpkins,” said Jennifer Therkilsen, Executive Director for Kinship of Park Rapids for the past eight years.

“We try to provide some opportunities that maybe the kids and the mentors might not do on their own. Often times the mentors will introduce them to new activities and they will learn how to do new things, gaining self-confidence. Teachers will tell us they can see the difference in kids who have mentors because a lot of times they will develop more social skills, allowing them to be more comfortable around other students. Lots of kids will do better in school and start getting better grades. It’s beneficial to both the family and also in the classroom; in the long-run we see our kids more likely to stay in school, do better in school, and are more likely to graduate.”

Not taking safety precautions lightly, Therkilsen does thorough background checks of very potential volunteer mentor before ever pairing a match.

“We get the volunteers permission and then do national and local backgrounds check - also doing a five-year driving record check - to learn about the volunteers as much as possible so I can make the best match possible. Then I support these connections by being in contact with both the family and the mentor to see how the match is going and also to help if we need to be a part of any problem solving,” Therkilsen said.

“We also ask for at least three references. We always try to prevent any situation that may be a problem. We look for adults who are able to commit to getting together with a child on a weekly basis for at least one full year. We tend to celebrate the more long-term relationships, feeling they have a better impact on the child’s life, but we only ask for a one year commitment. The mentor’s need to be very communicative with the staff involved and they also need to be able to provide transportation,” Therkilsen said.

Sounding like a daunting task at first, Therkilsen believes that mentors often find the program as rewarding as those they are mentor.

“I think volunteers will tell you that the program is mutually beneficial. I also see a lot of changes in the kids’ demeanor in the short-term. Some will go from a child who is getting-by and maybe only doing ok to a child who more often has a smile on their face when I see them,” Therkilsen said.

“Having a mentor gives them something to look forward to every week and it gives them a person in their life who they know they can count on to show up when they say they will and who focuses their attention on them. They know they might do something they enjoy with that mentor and every child loves that; it’s helpful for their self-esteem.”

Children only need to be referred to the program by a concerned adult, although age restrictions do apply.

“The people who are referring the children need to see that the child needs additional support. To make a good match, I need to get to know the children who are referred to the program. I do a home visit. I interview the child, I interview the parent or guardians and I often talk with their teachers or other people who have worked with the child. I try to learn as much as I can about the child and their personality,” Therkilsen said

“Referrals come from their parent or guardian, teachers and social workers, but the parent or guardian needs to approve the home interview, so there has to be support from them in order for the child to be involved in the program. The children are school-aged from six-years-old up to around age 16. There is cut-off policy at 18, but sometimes that gets extended to past graduation. We don’t recruit children for the program, because there are many who need it already on a waiting list. The community has been wonderful in responding to provide support for the organization and we really want to focus on mentor recruitment now.”

Alongside A Better Connection, Norby sees improvement in symptoms and behaviors being accomplished through the use of a mentorship program such as Kinship.

“It can be difficult to work with children who have confusing behaviors, but it is an incredibly rewarding experience when trust is built with these children and you see them succeed in many areas of life,” Norby said.

“The children in the Kinship program learn healthy relationships and trust from their mentors.”

Kinship of Park Rapids is continually looking for qualified volunteers. Going forward Therkilsen hopes to recruit more mentors suitable of easing the long waiting list of referrals currently available.

“The most important part of my job is the recruiting, screening, training and matching of an adult volunteer to be mentors for children in a community that needs some additional support,” Therkilsen said.

Nick Longworth
A graduate from St. Cloud State University, Nick photographs and writes a variety of stories for nearly every section of The Park Rapids Enterprise. His duties also include section layouts and online content submission.
(218) 732-3364