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The importance of near-peer mentors

No one can deny that this past year has been tough on everyone. The world is still feeling the impacts of COVID-19. Closer to home, the events at the Capitol on January 6, the continued atrocities and violence against BIPOC individuals in our communities and more have all added up to be a lot to digest — especially for young people. These traumatic events have undoubtedly been stressful on the members of the City Year Milwaukee corps and the students we serve, but we still have to show up for service each day.

Why City Year’s impact is even more important in the 2020-21 school year

Several times throughout the year the entire City Year Milwaukee community gathers for Equity Summits, which are days of programming focused on discussing important diversity, inclusion, belonging and equity topics to help us learn and grow as members of our beloved community. During Equity Summit 4, I was able to lead a session for the Milwaukee corps about adverse childhood experiences, toxic stress and ways that City Year can help our students cope with these events in our world.

Stress levels become toxic when the stressors are things that permeate everyday existence – you cannot escape toxic stress because it follows you around and affects everything you do and every decision that you make. The traumatic events of the last year have been just that.

COVID-19 has changed everything that we do – we now show up for school virtually from our own homes, unable to learn together in person and get to spend time developing relationships with our students in person, and it sometimes seems like you can never have a conversation without COVID coming up at least once. Over time, toxic stress can change brain development and cause other adverse effects in young people. Protective factors safeguard children against the adverse effects of trauma and toxic stress, but many of these typical protective factors have been broken down because of COVID-19.

Definition of toxic stress defined by Joining Forces for Children.

Supporting students through stressful circumstances

Though our service may look different than ever before due to being virtual, City Year Milwaukee corps members are doing what they can to continue to build positive relationships with their students, provide opportunities for social-emotional learning and afterschool programing and bringing play back into the classroom. Things like having safe and engaging activities for young people and access to peer networks and mentors can buffer students from the adverse effects of toxic stress, and City Year is doing its best to keep these buffers in place.

At Alexander Mitchell Integrated Arts School, we try to focus heavily on supporting our students academically and through social-emotional development. In the fall, we started a “Mindfulness Monday” initiative where our corps members would start Monday mornings off with a mindfulness activity for their students. Whether that be a guided meditation, listing things we are grateful for or taking a brain break to move our bodies together, the goal was to help our students start the new week off on the right foot in a more centered and grounded mindset.

Our most notable initiative in this regard was the beginning of our Extended Learning Time (ELT) space in January. ELT is “afterschool” programming that took place on Tuesdays and Thursdays after lunch during students’ asynchronous learning time. We use this space to help our students with homework or class assignments, but mostly we spend time building relationships and having fun with one another.

My favorite memory we have had in ELT all year was on April Fool’s Day. We previously made a Kahoot quiz with facts about our students, so this time, we told them it was a quiz about the City Years to see how well they knew us. The “fool” here, though, was that it was full of fake facts and silly, poorly edited photos putting our faces on pictures with the Queen of England, Milwaukee Bucks players and more. I have never heard more joy and laughter from my students than when I tried to convince them that one of their City Years was a former Milwaukee Bucks star or was actually an alien in human form.

The importance of near-peer mentors

Bringing that kind of joy and playfulness into the lives of students, when so much around them has been altered or overcast by negativity, is something that cushions against the aftereffects of toxic stress and trauma.

Being a near-peer mentor for my students means that they look up to me for guidance but also see me as someone accessible, close to their own age and with a better idea of what they may be going through than their teachers or other school staff.

Serving with City Year this year has been incredibly critical, as it has given me the opportunity to be someone who brings a little bit of positivity and fun back into the classroom when it could have easily felt so impersonal through the computer screen.

Article written by Mary Kate Paetow-Fanning, first-year AmeriCorps member at City Year Milwaukee.

About the author: Mary Kate Paetow-Fanning proudly serves as a first-year AmeriCorps member on the Julia A. Uihlein Team at Alexander Mitchell Integrated Arts School in a bilingual eighth-grade homeroom. When asked about her service experience so far, Mary Kate said, “My middle school students are my motivators. I love seeing how excited they get when they finally understand a difficult topic they have been working on or even our silly conversations like our favorite Tik Tok trends of the moment.”

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