Friends forever: Orcas Island mentors forge relationships with kids

John and Suzanne Olson with Jodi Luft (at front).

John Olson spends time every week with a little boy who loves to go crabbing, chop wood – and eat sweets.

“He is well disciplined, except when it comes to asking for candy,” laughs Olson, who has been part of the Funhouse’s mentor program for three months. He is following in the footsteps of his wife Suzanne, who has been mentoring a young girl for the past five years.

“Suzanne inspired and encouraged me to do it,” John said. “The best thing is the enjoyment that I have seen Suzanne have with her mentee. I enjoy the company of my little buddy, but I think there is a societal obligation: there are a lot of boys without fathers around. I was raised without a father and I understand the need for boys to have male role models.”

The Funhouse Commons’ mentor program provides island kids with one-on-one mentor matches. The children’s ages range from second grade through high school, and it’s about 60 percent girls and 40 percent boys. There are currently 18 adults participating as mentors, but there is a need for more. It entails a one-year commitment and at least one hour a week of quality time spent with a child. Typical activities are going to the beach, working on a project and doing activities outside.

“You have to be committed to that child, for at least a year. You have to be dependable,” said program director Jodi Luft, who is herself a mentor. “The kids are counting on you to be there on a set day. And it works both ways. The kids need to be there too.”

The program accepts children from any background. Sometimes mentors meet prospective mentees at a community event or the Funhouse hears about kids from counselors at the school.

“Absolutely anyone is eligible,” Luft said. “You can never have too many people who care about you.”

January is mentor appreciation month. The Funhouse’s next training session is set for Feb. 11. After that initial training, mentors can meet once a month with other volunteers, but it is not mandatory.

Luft, who also drives a school bus, has known her mentee since she was born.

“We had a mentor for her sister, so I decided to mentor her,” she said. “We go to the beach, I’ve taken her to Oregon to visit family. She likes to brush my horses and ride … She reminds me to have fun and to forget about being the adult. It gives me an excuse to be young.”

A lot of adults and their young friends stay close even after they graduate, something that Suzanne anticipates with her mentee.

“I plan to be involved in her life as long as I am living,” she said. “It’s a really good match. We have developed a trust and rapport that allows us to do a lot of fun stuff together.”

Suzanne and her friend have published a chapbook of poetry, done creative writing, gone on backpacking trips and played soccer. She says she has “re-learned the value of giggling and being silly” as a result of her mentoring.

“We’re gearing up for a really big project,” Suzanne said. “She loves theatre, drama and singing, so she wants to go to New York. We are doing ‘Walk to New York,” and will walk 10,000 steps a day. We are hoping to get in 450 miles in 90 days and raise money so she can go to New York in the summertime.”

John and his young buddy ride the lawn mower together, chop wood and go crabbing in his boat.

“I even let him drive the boat, with my help,” he said. “He was in hog heaven.”

The pair also bake cakes nearly every week.

“They set up their cake ingredients, go do the manly stuff, and then come back in and bake,” Suzanne said.

The boy also brings home baked goods and kindling for his family.

“He is an at age where he is curious about things and its fun to share his enthusiasm,” John said. “I teach him a lot of safety stuff about whatever we do. I taught him to safely light a fire in our fireplace. He loves to chop kindling.”

Suzanne says her husband is a great teacher with a lot of different skills. John expects to be a mentor through the boy’s high school years.

“I will probably have to talk to him about girls soon, to warn him,” he joked.

The families of their mentees are very involved in their relationships – both of them attended John’s birthday party.

“Having raised four kids myself, it’s really a pleasure to get to spend time with a child without the pressures of what do I need to do, what this child has to do for school,” she said. “I am free of all those strings. I just get to be present. It is such a treat. I get to follow their interests and our mutual interests without all the pressures of parenting … even when you don’t think you have time for one more thing, there is always time for a kid.”

Become a mentor or mentee

For more information about the mentoring program at the Funhouse Commons, email Jodi Luft at sjqtrhorses@centurytel.net.