Health professionals in wait reach out in a big way

(Edmonton) More than 150 elementary and junior high school kids in Edmonton have had medical and dental students as their mentors, thanks to a great idea by a medical student three years ago.

Peter MacPherson, a volunteer at Big Brothers Big Sisters who was only in his first year of medicine at the University of Alberta, approached BBBS about starting a mentorship program that would match elementary kids and medical students. Shortly after that discussion, a group of medical students approached the charity to inquire about starting a junior-high mentorship program as well. Today, both programs are so popular that kids in younger grades can’t wait to join the programs when school starts again in the fall.

“We wanted to address the tremendous need for mentors in Edmonton,” said MacPherson. “An impressive number of medical students got behind this idea and volunteered as Big Brothers and Big Sisters. 

“This partnership fosters an interest in post-secondary education from a very young age and encourages kids to explore their dreams and passions.”

In the elementary mentorship program, which is run over the lunch hour, 35 Grade 5 students from King Edward Elementary School and the Academy at King Edward come to campus every Tuesday. Another 35 Grade 5 students from Montrose Elementary School come to the U of A every Wednesday.

The elementary-school kids and their mentors have participated in a variety of fun activities here over the last few years, including viewing art, playing sports, taking part in drama sessions, painting flower pots, having a scavenger hunt, going to chemistry labs and the computer cave and seeing who can build the highest freestanding tower of newspapers. Mentors also make an effort to find out what the elementary kids dream of doing when they grow up and then take them to that part of campus to find out more about what it would take to make that dream a reality.

In the junior-high mentorship program, 15 medical students head out to Edith Rogers Junior High School in Mill Woods where they mentor 15 teenagers on Wednesday nights. They start off with a healthy snack, then play group sports in the gym. They also head out on field trips once a month to partake in such activities as curling, rock climbing and water polo. A big focus in both programs is building those one-on-one mentoring friendships, which has a huge impact on the kids, says Chelsie McFarlane, the BBBS caseworker in charge of the Tuesday lunch-hour mentorship program.

“We have a lot of great stories about what a difference this program has made. We have one elementary student who said the advice his medical-student mentor has given him has made him stronger and more confident when interacting with his peers in various situations. That is wonderful to see.”

Kristina Kettenbach, 23, a second-year medical student at the U of A, is a mentor in the junior-high program. She is matched with Shyanne McDonald, 14.

“I like hanging out with the kids, playing sports and getting to know Shyanne—she’s really awesome,” said Kettenbach. “It’s great to give the kids opportunities they wouldn’t usually have. And it’s a fun break from their typical school week. Mentoring one-and-a-half hours a week makes a big difference.”

McDonald says the program is great and is something she looks forward to every week.

“I think it’s really fun. I like hanging out with Kristina and doing fun things I wouldn’t normally do. I have done things that have helped me push past my limits. I am afraid of heights, but I did rock climbing and climbed right to the top of the wall,” she says proudly.

These mentorship programs with medical and dental students will soon wrap up and resume again in the new school year.