KINSHIP PROGRAM LINKS KIDS, MENTORS
The program was founded by Luther Seminary students
A mentoring program for youngsters from single-parent families that has deep Lutheran roots and still commands substantial support among Lutheran congregations is flourishing now on an interdenominational basis.
Kinship of Greater Minneapolis counts 41 active mentors from 33 Lutheran churches on its roster of over 300 persons — couples and families as well as individuals — who are providing an adult relationship with some 260 kids in need.
Thirteen Lutheran parishes also contribute to the organization’s $405,000 annual budget, which has nearly doubled in the past four years. And Kinship’s main office is at Christ English Lutheran Church (3210 Oliver Ave. N.) on the north side, with a southside affiliate at Minne-haha Communion Lutheran (4101 37th Ave. S.). Both are ELCA congregations.
Kinship is part of a national network, most of whose 50 chapters are in the Midwest. Twenty of these are in Minnesota, including four in the metro area, besides the largest one in Minneapolis. Those are in Apple Valley, Coon Rapids, Cambridge and Monticello. In addition, Kinship of Greater Minneapolis is currently working to expand its program to St. Paul.
Kinship of Greater Minneapolis keeps a waiting list of 100 children whose single parents — mostly African-American mothers — want to find a mentor for their child. The time kids stay on that waiting list has been cut from over a year to nine months as the number of volunteer mentors has in-creased, said Dan Johnson, the program’s 43-year-old executive director. But it’s clear Johnson and his staff of seven full-time and five part-time workers want to recruit more mentors and cut further into that waiting period.
“We try to retain our Christian heritage as an organization,” Johnson said.
The Christian component is evident in the literature the group puts out, in the membership of its board of directors, in the motivation of many mentors and the desires many parents express when they bring their children to the agency.
But while there’s no taboo on mentors’ talking about faith matters with their young friends, the emphasis is on demonstrating Christian values in their relationships rather than recruiting them as members of a church, Johnson indicated.
“We’re all called to help people in time of need through our faith,” he said. “This is an opportunity to respond.”
Individuals, couples and families who volunteer to serve as mentors must go through a rigorous screening process as Kinship attempts to make the best possible match of mentors with youngsters. The adults are then asked to commit themselves to spending an hour a week with the child for a minimum of one year.
Mike and Brenda Edstrom, Camden-neighborhood residents and parents of daughters Kirsten, 10, and Meghan, 8, were first matched with Ashley Williams, daughter of a divorced African-American working mother, in 1997.
Since then the Edstroms, who are members of Cross of Glory Lutheran (ELCA) in Brooklyn Center, have found that spending longer times every other week with Ashley, now 13, is more beneficial.
Going out to eat at a restaurant is a standard part of the activities when Ashley comes over, and during the winter months the three girls play table and computer games and watch TV. In the summer the agenda broadens considerably to include things like visits to parks, zoos and taking ice-skating lessons.
It seems clear to a visitor that over the 3-1/2 years of the relationship, during which Ashley’s family has made several moves, including one to the south side before returning to Brooklyn Park on the north side, Ashley has become part of the Edstroms’ extended family. That’s the kind of outcome Kinship leaders like to see from mentoring relationships.
“It’s been a good match,” says Brenda Edstrom. “Ashley’s very open to try anything. I think it’s really worked well for us.”
Ashley’s mother, Wendy, is equally pleased with the relationship. The age gap between Ashley and the younger Ed-strom girls has been no problem at all, she said. “Ashley’s really fond of Brenda and Mike and Kirsten and Meghan.”
All four of Wendy’s children have had mentors through the Kinship program. Antonio, 19, and Brandi, 16, are “graduates” and Renaldo, 10, is currently involved along with Ashley.
“The program impacts the children a lot,” Wendy said. “It’s something they look forward to. That’s a good thing about it — they want to do it.”
She said she involved her children with Kinship because she had heard positive reports on it from friends. She wanted her children to have something extra to do, to have time individually to make connections beyond their own family, and possibly to find role models. Wendy added: “All the families my kids have been matched with are Caucasians. It’s good for them to see the differences. Diversity — I like that about the program.”
For Ashley, a B student who loves sports and the outdoors, the connection with the Edstroms has, for example, stirred an interest in ice skating which she might otherwise not have developed.
Kinship Director Johnson realizes that not all mentoring relationships work out so well as that between the Edstrom family and Ashley Williams. In a recent newsletter, he wrote: “I know that some of our mentors realize discouragement with kids who sometimes are not there at their appointed meeting time. Often social graces and manners are lacking. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are less common than ‘Could you do this?’ or ‘Can I have that?’
“It is understandable for mentors to question whether they are making a positive difference in the lives of their younger Kinship friends. Sometimes they may never have a definitive answer to this question.
“Yet, if they are faithful to the relationship, they model some things that are in short supply in our culture: faithfulness and fidelity. We are called to faithfulness; this may or may not equate with what the world defines as ‘success.’ Let us keep the faith; kids are counting on us!”
There’s an unusual twist in the circumstances that led to Johnson’s heading up Kinship of Greater Minneapolis. The concept of older men forming mentoring relationships with youths from single-parent families who were getting into trouble with the law was developed in the early 1950s by a group of Luther Seminary students that included Dan’s father, Curt.
That same group went on to establish Plymouth Christian Youth Center for underprivileged youngsters on Minneapolis’ north side after graduation, and they included programs for men and women mentors, as well as the Wilderness Canoe Base, as ministries of the center. Dan’s father was called to be the first director of the mentoring programs in 1962 and later was named director of the youth center, remaining there until 1977.
The old American Lutheran Church adopted the mentoring programs as national ministries in 1967 and merged them under the Kinship name in 1969. Dan Johnson first became involved with the Kinship program in River Falls, Wisconsin, while pursuing a graduate degree in social work at the University of Wisconsin campus there.
Following completion of his degree work, he joined the Kinship staff at the Plymouth Youth Center and remained there for five years. In 1988, the youth center dropped the Kinship program, chiefly for financial reasons, and a year later the newly formed ELCA cut it loose as a national ministry of that Lutheran body.
Dan Johnson was one of those who then reorganized Kinship as an interdenominational, non-profit group, building on the national foundation established during its years under the ALC. Kinship has been growing ever since as the mentoring concept has taken hold.
It now receives 63% of its financial support from private and corporate foundations, 26% from individual donors, 6% from churches and 4% from corporations. The Pillsbury Company Foundation is the largest single backer, according to Johnson, with Lutheran Brotherhood, Cargill, General Mills and the McKnight and Minneapolis Foundations also making significant contributions.
Kinship has plenty of competition in the mentoring field. The Big Brothers-Big Sisters operation is the oldest and largest, Johnson says, and there are now over 100 mentoring programs in the Twin Cities area.
While there is a lot of competition, he said, many of the programs have carved out a particular niche for themselves. Kinship, for example, opens the doors to mentoring for couples and families as well as individuals; enrolls needy children at a younger age (the range is 5-15 years); and gives Christians the chance to put their faith into action.
Johnson also stresses the lengths to which Kinship goes to make sure matches of children with adult mentors are good ones. For example, all volunteer tutors must complete a detailed application form that includes four character references, attend an orientation/training session, go through a check by the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehen-sion and have an in-depth interview with two staff members.
“Mentorship programs have been mushrooming, and in some ways that’s a good thing,” Johnson said. “But my concern is that there is a lot of infrastructure necessary to do it properly, to make sure the matches are going to be good for everyone and the relationships healthy.
“So we would invite partnerships with churches who might be thinking about starting a mentoring program so we could work along with them to handle all the screening, matching and follow-up that’s necessary. The last thing we need is to set up kids for more bad experiences and broken promises.
“Very often, if there’s not some structure, it’s likely relationships won’t last. There just needs to be accountability, and that’s what we can provide.”
Persons interested in becoming mentors can contact Kinship of Greater Minneapolis at 612/588-4655. The E-mail address is mail@ kinship.org, and the website is located at www.kinship.org.