Cody Mentoring Program Helps Children, Teens Forge Connections

One-on-one attention provides camaraderie and confidence for kids who need it most

Since losing his parents, Shawn Pearson, 11, has formed a strong bond with his Bright Futures mentor, Emma Kendrick, which has helped him in the wake of these personal tragedies. (Courtesy photo from Diane Ballard) 

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Shawn Pearson has been through a lot in his short life. In 2018, the 11-year-old, sixth grader lost his mom, prompting he and his father to relocate to Cody from Kansas to be closer to family. In February, when his father unexpectedly passed away from an aortic dissection, Shawn moved in with his aunt, uncle and cousins.

“He’s handled everything pretty well,” said Erin Hazel, Shawn’s aunt.

Part of this is the relationship Shawn has developed with Emma Kendrick, 15, through Bright Futures Mentoring. The Cody-based program pairs high school students with elementary students to help children like Shawn who can benefit from extra attention and support.

“It’s fun,” Shawn told the Wyoming Truth by phone. Though unfamiliar with the term “mentor,” Shawn said he enjoys spending time with Kendrick.

Established as a nonprofit in 2004, the organization initially operated like the national Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, where mentors and mentees did activities together, such as fishing and going to movies. It has since developed into two distinct offerings: a twice-monthly, after-school program and a one-on-one mentoring arrangement in which mentors meet with their assigned mentee once a month for lunch at the child’s elementary school. The focus is on having fun and providing opportunities for the mentors and mentees to connect, find purpose and develop self-worth.

Shawn Pearson, 11, enjoys a monthly lunch with his mentor, 15-year-old Emma Kendrick. (Courtesy photo from Diane Ballard) 

“Young kids really look up to our high school mentors,” said Diane Ballard, program director of Bright Futures. “It is surprisingly easy to provide interest and friendship to young people, and it is profoundly rewarding to see the heartwarming dynamics that result.”

Ballard, who has been with the nonprofit for six years, oversees both programs with the help of two interns. They are funded by local donors and a handful of grants. It’s a small program and sustainability remains a challenge, she said.

Currently, there are 25 fifth graders in the program. School counselors help identify the mentees from the five elementary schools in Park County who could most benefit from the positive influence of a mentor.

The program also recruits a similar number of mentors, mostly sophomores through seniors at Cody High School, to volunteer in one or both programs. Some adults from the community participate, too, Ballard said.

Connecting through stories

Kendrick, a sophomore at Cody High School and aspiring teacher, participates in both programs. It’s her second year, and she said she was drawn to Shawn right away. He was quiet at first, she recalled, but frequently sat at her table in the after-school program and slowly warmed up to her.

“Once he got comfortable around me and knew who I was, he talked about his dad a lot,” Kendrick said. “He would always tell me some fun story about something he and his dad had been doing that week.”

When Kendrick heard Shawn’s father died in February, she was devastated for the boy.

“I felt so horrible for him and what a hard thing he must be going through,” said Kendrick, who joined Bright Futures Mentoring at the urging of her mother. “I wanted to be there to give him extra support.”

Following his father’s death, Shawn talked about mostly sad things, Kendrick said. 

Eventually, she was able to redirect him to share happy stories and memories of his father.

Cody High School senior, Allison Magaral, 18, finds purpose and meaning serving as a one-on-one mentor and intern in the Bright Futures Mentoring program in Cody. (Courtesy photo from Allison) Margargal) 

Today, Shawn seems much happier and has taken an interest in creative writing, Kendrick said. Many of the stories he shares with her revolve around a little boy who slays monsters and defeats other bad guys, which, in Kendrick’s mind, is quite fitting for his own healing.

Bright Futures Mentoring also has enriched Kendrick’s life.

“It’s definitely made me look at people differently,” Kendrick said, “because sometimes, we automatically judge people without thinking about it. And I learned that every single person has something going on in their lives, and we usually don’t know it and can’t make any judgments until we know what their story is.”

Fellow mentor Allison Magargal agreed. A senior at Cody High School, she signed on with Bright Futures Mentoring last year and also volunteers as an intern. Magargal had been active in sports, but wanted to try other extracurricular activities. Being a mentor stuck.

“It makes my day, and I get to help and be around people who lift me up,” said Magargal, 18, who mentors a fifth grade boy. “Everyone needs someone to talk to and just have someone be a part of their life. I think it’s important to support programs that support youth.”

Magargal particularly enjoys listening to the guest speakers who come to the after-school program, including recent visits from the Northwest College Rodeo team and a Yellowstone National Park ranger.

For Hazel, having a mentor for Shawn makes a big difference as he continues to heal and adapt to living in their house with his three cousins, ages 15, 16 and 20. Besides she and her husband, Loren, Shawn doesn’t have a lot of adults around to nurture him.

“I just think it’s a great program,” Hazel said. “And I’m grateful to have this resource for him to give him that extra attention.” 

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