Bridging the gap
Mentors find special place in area school
Tracy B. Cieniewicz, Hartselle Enquirer
Ron and Harriet Kepler of Hartselle have found a rewarding way to cross the generation gap and share special learning experiences with children in their community.
Volunteers with the Volunteer Center of Morgan County "Friend 2 Friend" mentoring program, a partnership of Hartselle and Decatur city schools, the Keplers have mentored three students each at Barkley Bridge Elementary School since they retired and moved to Hartselle from Denver, Colo., four years ago.
The couple has four children and 13 grandchildren. Their son, Jeff Kepler, was the former pastor of Westview Church of Christ. He and his family currently live in Birmingham. Their daughter, Janet Bailey, lives in Moulton.
"We moved here to be closer to our kids and grandkids," Harriet said. "Having worked in the Denver public school system, I really started to miss being with kids and being in the classroom. I read about the mentoring program in the paper when we first moved here and thought it was a great idea."
Harriet, a reading and writing assistant in Denver public schools, also worked at the Denver YMCA as an early childhood education teacher. Ron retired from a company that gathers insurance information.
"We raised our kids to do volunteer work," Harriet recalled. "Our daughter, Janet, was a candy striper in high school and our son, Jeff, was named the volunteer of the year by the Red Cross in Decatur when he lived here. And Ron's 90-year-old mother recently received her pin for 5,000 hours of service from the hospital she volunteers at in Nebraska. We thought the mentoring program would be a nice way for us to get involved in our new community."
After completing a mentoring training course and background check, the Keplers began visiting Barkley Bridge once a week for about an hour with each child they mentored. Harriet, who mentored three girls, and Ron, who mentored three boys, said the students were identified for the program by exhibiting a need for a male or female role model.
"Parents are so busy these days, it's just good for kids to have another adult to share experiences with," Harriet said. "I think it would be beneficial for more adults to be in all public schools, not just elementary. Schools may not have a lot of money right now, but there are plenty of volunteers."
The Keplers said their time with the students may seem short, but the couple tries to pack a lot of quality into each visit.
"We don't have to tutor them, but we do," Ron admitted. "Some days, the kids might need help with math or writing a paper, and other days they just need to have some fun. I try to make what we do learn fun by picking up on their interests and favoring them."
Ron said he uses card tricks, simple science experiments and art activities most often when spending time with the boys.
" I enjoy seeing that light bulb come on over their heads," Ron said with a smile. "They often surprise me and teach me something, too. Some days I'll come in and say, 'Okay, let's see who can draw the best alligator,' or, 'Who can make a paper airplane stay in the air the longest?' Oh man, they can come up with some fancy designs."
Harriet has shown her girls how to make cards with rubber stamp designs, send thank you notes, keep journals, start a collection, and observe nearly forgotten customs, like May Day.
"We've had manicure parties and birthday parties, too, but I also help them with their spelling words and give them rewards," Harriet said. "The manager at Hardee's just gives me fists full of coupons to share with the kids, or coloring sheets. I would like to see more of the businesses here get involved like that."
The Keplers haven't limited their school involvement to mentoring. They have also helped judge the annual science poster fair at Barkley Bridge, attend any school activity the kids invite them to, and have lunch with the students.
"Mentoring is just a great opportunity for young and old to mix cultures and get a different insight and perspective on life," Ron said.
Harriet agreed. "It's essential for the child and rewarding for the mentor."
Barkley Bridge Guidance Counselor Charlotte Riddlehoover said the mentoring program has been rewarding to the school and its students as well.
"It has been so wonderful to have someone to just sit patiently with the child, listen to them, like them for who they are, and give them an extra boost," Riddlehoover said. "Sometimes children might have a parent who is absent from the home and mentors, like the Keplers, fill that need by being there to have lunch with them at school, see the play they're in or remembering their birthday. It gives the kids a good, secure feeling."
According to Riddlehoover, the Keplers are also a source of support to the staff at Barkley Bridge.
"With Mrs. Keppler's background in education and his knowledge and interest in the children, they're like another set of counselors here. The mentoring program is good, but the Keplers are great."
January is National Mentoring Month. Friend 2 Friend requires volunteer mentors commit one hour per week or three hours per month for at least one school year with their student. Mentors can choose their student's age group (K-12) or opt for a specific school to visit. All mentoring visits are held during the school day and on school property. The day and time of the visit is based on the mentor's schedule.
A background screening and two-hour training course is required if you'd like to become a mentor. For more information, call 355-8628.