Miller Mentoring’s Drew Altoff offers his insight on the program, his role, and the importance of volunteerism.
By: Drew Althoff, program manager
“My first genuine experience with youth work and volunteer work was in 2005 at a domestic violence shelter in Baraboo, WI. After a few months of volunteering as a youth group coordinator, I was hired in the position. I found a passion for working with youth and saw first-hand how important volunteering is for a community. Then, after moving to Winona in 2007, I began volunteering at Miller Mentoring. From there it’s come full circle.
In June 2019, I became the program manager for Miller Mentoring. After six years as a youth worker in county government, I found what feels like a perfect fit: a school-based mentoring program that focuses on social-emotional needs and development. While the first two school years haven’t exactly gone according to plan, the future is bright.
The Miller Mentoring program serves 5th – 12th-grade students at Winona Area Public Schools. Our mission is to build relationships through meeting social-emotional needs while also building a solid academic foundation. Over the past 20 years, Miller Mentoring has grown and thrived. It’s a vital part of our school community. The importance of supporting and nurturing young people through their adolescent years is critical. From life skills development to self-regulation techniques to academic support, we strive to offer an all-encompassing approach to mentoring. The first step is creating a space where students feel both welcome and safe. From there, it can take time to build trust. Patience and persistence are key.
Thankfully, we have classroom space at both Winona Middle School and Winona Senior High and our doors are open throughout the school day. Students stop in for snacks or stay with us if they need a break. We see many students in our rooms for lunch every day. And we also have students in for homerooms and guided study halls. We strive to make ourselves available to students when they need support, whenever that may be. Then, our primary function is one-on-one after school mentoring, which runs Monday through Wednesdays from 3:40 to 5:00 PM. The group comes together and we work on homework, play games, and create art masterpieces on any given afternoon. We balance fun and accountability well. That’s critical.
Yet, for all the Miller Mentoring program offers, none of it would be possible without community volunteerism. Our mentors keep the program going strong. We have a wonderful group of folks who are dedicated to making positive impacts. And with more mentors, we can reach more students. The rewards are bountiful. Mentoring truly helps create a healthier and more cohesive community. One caring adult can make all the difference in a young person’s life. Have you considered becoming a mentor? I can assure you that you will not regret it. It’s paying it forward at its finest. And you don’t need to be a mathematician or scientist to be a successful mentor. A listening ear and open heart go a long way. Just being there is sometimes the most pressing need at the moment.
I often find myself feeling lucky to have this opportunity: to work with youth and get to know their families, to work alongside some amazing educators, to have unwavering hope and faith in the work we do. I can’t take credit for that. It comes down to the program coordinators who always go above and beyond (Haylee, Karen, Kathy, Kim, Laura, and Stacy), our dear mentors who have stuck with us through a pandemic, and our students who provide that sense of hope and faith that keeps us centered. It’s a beautiful thing and I’m honored to be a part of it”