SWANTON — When 14-year-old Logan Burke’s father died of cancer some three years ago, the abrupt change, grief and the lack of a father figure made for difficult period.

Burke’s mother, Brenda, 52, said that her son often felt frustrated and also had no outlet for his energy, causing issues both in school and at home.

“It was rough on him. He was angry, he was frustrated,” said Brenda in her Swanton home yesterday.

After seeking counseling in St. Albans and beginning treatment, Burke and his mother soon learned about Watershed Mentoring, a program run through Franklin County Caring Communities (FCCC) that pairs local adults and children for activities once a week.

With Watershed Mentoring, Burke would have the opportunity to spend time with an adult man, someone who could help act as a father figure.

“Everything he does is manly,” Brenda said.

Fast-forward three years, and Burke is hanging out with St. Albans-based spouses Chad Spooner and Kristina Ellsworth, both 38, and their youngest son, Jacob, 8, in Brenda’s living room after a good few rounds of the basketball game P-I-G.

The couple jointly mentors Burke and spends time with him at least once a week, and he also joins in activities with their two sons, Jacob and 15-year-old Jensen.

“He just absolutely loves going,” said Brenda of her son’s visits to St. Albans. She added that Logan is doing better in school and has learned to better communicate his feelings and frustrations, a large improvement over the past.

“It helps him out,” she said. “It helps me out.”

How it works

Watershed Mentoring began in the 1990s under the name Missisquoi Mentoring, run namely in Swanton as a program for the Abenaki Native American population.

In the early 2000s, FCCC took over, expanding the program to any school-aged child and matching mentors who wanted or needed to participate in Franklin County.

“It’s a really nice way to give some extra attention and support to somebody,” said Beth Crane, FCCC’s director.

The community-based program in which Burke participates with Spooner and Ellsworth is one option, a model based on the popular mentoring program Big Brothers Big Sisters. There are also two-school based programs in Swanton Elementary School and St. Albans City School, where mentors meet their mentees for lunch.

In addition, Cornerstone Bridges to Life Community Center offers site-based mentoring in Richford in collaboration with Watershed Mentoring.

Crane said that mentoring pairs start out meeting for at least an hour or two once a week for at about a year, though they are encouraged to continue meeting beyond that. Pairs do various activities – walking and biking, going to the movies, getting ice cream, going fishing or shopping.

“Whatever interests both of them,” Crane said.

“We’re looking to create lifelong friends,” she added. “It’s really at a year that you start developing a bond, trust.”

Crane said that special efforts go into reviewing program applications and finding a mentoring pair that will work well together to better ensure a relationship that continues past a year.

“I do a lot to ensure that I’m not matching people that wouldn’t be a good fit,” said Crane.

Mentors also go through training and are provided with suggestions for activities, and FCCC also checks in regularly.

Currently Watershed Mentoring has 17 community-based matches, nine school-based matches, and seven matches in Richford at Cornerstone.

“We’d like more,” said Crane. “We have kids on our waiting list who would love a mentor.”

She added that the program especially needs more men for children like Burke, who could use some sort of father figure just as Spooner has been. “We joke about commitment issues,” Crane said, “[but] it’s challenging to bring men on board and yet the need is huge.”

What it’s like

The first time Burke met with Spooner and Ellsworth three years ago, they went fishing.

“He caught my pony tail,” Ellsworth said.

Since then, Burke has done a number of things with his mentors – shopping, walking, biking, fishing, playing basketball, swimming, snowboarding, boating, going to the movies, buying ice cream, and so on.

For Spooner and Ellsworth, who volunteer quite a bit in addition to their full-time work, including Burke wasn’t a lot of extra work.

“We’re out doing so much as it is, and there’s always room for one more,” said Ellsworth.

Spooner said, “[Now I just] have two man-boys in the back seat instead of one.”

And for Burke’s mom, Brenda, she gets more time to get things done as a busy single mom.

“This gives the mom the break and the child a little bit of outlet,” said Spooner.

At first, the relationship between Burke and the couple began with a focus on having fun, and nothing else. Eventually, as bonds started to form, the couple said they began having more serious conversations with Burke about school, bullying issues there, strategizing what he’ll do when he’s frustrated, and so on.

“They know more about what’s going on with him than I do,” said Brenda.

“It has definitely opened up,” said Spooner.

Burke’s connection with Spooner and Ellsworth has transformed over the years. “It’s almost like he’s part of the family now,” said Spooner.

“We were very lucky he just found a family he just clicked in with,” said Brenda.

She added that the effects of her son’s work with his mentors are apparent at home and in school, where he communicates better, stays calmer, and perhaps doesn’t have quite as much extra energy after running around or playing basketball with Spooner.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like,” said Brenda, “if we hadn’t met the people that we met.”

“It helped me do better,” Burke said. “[Chad and Kristina are] someone to hang out with.”

Early prevention

According to Spooner and Ellsworth, they’ve seen first hand the big impact just one or two hours a week can have in a child’s life.

“It’s simply adding a little more support when a kid needs it,” said Spooner.

“We talk a lot about saving kids when they’re younger,” he added. “Here’s your opportunity.”

Crane said that the idea of reaching kids early who may be struggling or have something missing in their lives is what’s behind Watershed Mentoring.

“We’re trying to reach them upstream. It’s all about primary prevention,” she said. “This is a really neat kind of ‘one person at a time’ way to do something. You can make a difference in someone’s life.”