United Way seeking pals to mentor students in reading, math, leadership

PALS volunteer Monica Adams reads with Hunter Hartman in a photo taken in October 2018. The United Way’s PALS program teams volunteers with students who need a little boost in reading, math or — for older students — in gaining leadership skills. The program is seeking more pals for the 2021-22 school year.

In every school, there are some students who need a little extra help with reading or math or — with older students — in getting a grasp on leadership skills.

The United Way of Paducah-McCracken County has a mentoring program that matches volunteers to local students who can use their help, guidance and attention.

The Promoting Academics and Leadership in Schools program — known as PALS — is in its 12th year in Paducah, and its first students to take part in the program as second-graders at McNabb Elementary just graduated from high school.

Anne Bidwell, the community impact manager for the United Way of Paducah-McCracken County, oversees the program and said PALS is looking for more volunteers after coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need to, essentially, relaunch,” she said. “When we shut down in 2019-20, I did a census. We began the year with 191 mentors. When we shut down, we had 187 — which is great. You’re always going to lose a couple of mentors.

“We were way under 100 during the pandemic, so now, we’ve got to go back to those mentors who were on hold and hope that they have not gotten busy with something else or decided that this is a good time to retire and try to re-energize our volunteer force and get them ready to go back to school.”

Bidwell said that would be a re-recruitment plan. The other part of the plan for this year was getting back to normal.

“Normally, what we do in the summer is we are looking for brand-new mentors,” she said. “We’ve got this great system where mentors and students are following each other grade-to-grade — and we see all kinds of benefits with that — but when you do that, you are always losing volunteers for the early grades, so we always have to re-recruit because we’re always going to have a new crop of first- and second-graders, and they’re going to need people, too.”

Bidwell said it isn’t just students who are just starting out who need helping hands. There are students who develop problems as they move through the system who could use a mentor to help them work their way through reading and math difficulties.

“It’s my job to have mentors ready to go,” she said. “Some mentors prefer to start in elementary school, but we have needs in middle school and high school, too. Kids there need mentors as well, so I also need volunteers who are more at home with a tween (preteen) or a teen.

“This is really a critical time when I need to find all kinds of people. It’s never a problem to find a student, but it is often a problem to find a volunteer.”

Those interested in volunteering with the United Way PALS program can go to unitedwaypaducah.org/pals, read about the program and fill out the application. The school preference list on the application gives the days and times that are open at each school. There is also a place to select an orientation day and time to learn more about the PALS program with United Way workers.

Bidwell said returning to school after coming out of the pandemic will have some students who have been affected by the pandemic era.

“We are walking back into a school environment where kids are probably hurting more than they were before — or, at least, it’s the potential,” she said. “We want to make sure that our volunteers are fully prepared, that they are ready to be flexible, that they understand the importance of communication.”

The orientation session will help volunteers understand how they can help students with reading, math or leadership as well as mentor them through other difficulties they may have.

“We obviously want people who are caring, who have a heart for children,” Bidwell said. “You don’t have to be an expert in reading or math or youth leadership. Often, what we find is that children just need a person they can depend upon.

“Probably right after ‘caring’ is ‘dependable.’ Attendance is very important to the program because one of the things that we’re developing with this student is that there can be a trusted adult; there can be someone who’s going to be there for them. Attendance is our best way of communicating that a person has value, that we’re setting aside time to be fully present with you right now.”

Bidwell said volunteers who enjoy reading or math would be a plus to the program, but volunteers certainly don’t need to be an expert in those fields.

“All that we’re looking for is a great listener and a great encourager — someone who can look a student in the eye and smile at them and be positive and just be a bright spot in the student’s week,” she said.

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