Our Stories

Steve MalickSteve Malick

Willamette University Students Fill a Mentoring Gap

Bush Elementary School and Willamette University are neighbors.

And like a good neighbor, Willamette University students have stepped up to help their little neighbors to the east.

Bush has been losing federal funding each year as enrollment has dropped.

When the lack of funding claimed the job of a respected community outreach service coordinator at the end of last school year, it looked like the end of a great volunteer partnership between Willamette and Bush stretching back at least 10 years.

With no one to coordinate them, after-school programs and mentorships were cut.

However, Willamette University students Steve Malick and Susanna Bee, longtime mentors and volunteers at Bush, decided that they couldn't let that happen.

"We decided at Willamette that we could really step up and play a role to help out," Malick said of the school's Tiger Club, which makes up for budget shortfalls at Bush not with cash, but by providing student volunteers from Willamette.

Tiger Club is a structured after-school program designed to partner Willamette students with Bush students for mentoring, academic improvement and fun.

"When most people would hear, 'Oh, they cut that program?' They'd say, 'That's horrible,'" Bee said, "But Steve was like, 'They cut that program; I'm going to bring it back.'"

Malick lined up a grant from the Lilly Foundation, a resource that funds a lot of research efforts by students.

Malick and Bee rounded up about 40 volunteers to help on a weekly basis, something they say is surprisingly easy at Willamette, a university that doesn't have a volunteer hour requirement for graduation.

The grant also allowed for an Americorps Vista Volunteer, Jeff Meier, who relies heavily on his two years as an after-school program director at a YMCA in Wisconsin as he trains Willamette volunteers about ways to engage Bush students.

"Oftentimes, the campus is seen as an ivory tower where theories are conceived of and not implemented," Meier said. "I'm here to bridge that gap between the community and the university."

Bush serves a low-income neighborhood that is high in crime, so mentors for academics as well as lifestyles are at a premium.

"When students are lagging behind academically, they need extra time to catch up," Bush Principal Dave Bertholf said. "That's what Tiger Club presents. It's not just about having fun in a safe place; those are byproducts."

Bertholf said the most valuable thing that Willamette students provide is often the least tangible.

"They provide another adult who cares," Bertholf said. "Some of our kids are from broken homes or even two-parent households where both parents work. What those Willamette students do is tell a kid, 'Hey, I care.'"

This story was written by Timothy Alex Akimoff for the Statesman Journal and appeared on March 27, 2007. © 2007, the Statesman Journal. Reprinted with permission.

Willamette acknowledges the leadership and advocacy of history Professor Bill Smaldone, whose vision for this partnership between Willamette and Bush Elementary has been realized.