A mentoring program by the Western Youth Network that has been growing over the years in Watauga County was recently brought to a village in Benin, Africa.

Charlene Grasinger has worked with WYN for four years and serves as the organization’s assistant director of mentoring. She spent a week in October in Benin, Africa, to help build a mentoring program for a village in the area that is similar to what WYN conducts in Boone.

Grasinger explained that in 2016 she became a peer collaborator through the Mandela Washington Fellowship program by the Young African Leaders Initiative. The fellowship stated that the program allows young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa to hone in skills in business, civic engagement or public management at a higher education institution in the U.S. with support for professional development after they return home.

According to Grasinger, Appalachian State University offers a six-week course to 25 African leaders each year through the fellowship. As Grasinger said she has an inherent love for Africa from her time serving in the Peace Corps, she wanted to help with the program.

While Grasinger has worked alongside other fellows since volunteering with the program, she has kept in touch with one who came to the U.S. in 2016. When Abiona Jean Bamigbade visited the U.S., Grasinger spoke with him about WYN’s mentoring program. She said Bamigbade had a huge interest in mentoring and worked with women and girls in his village in Benin, Africa, to try to help them overcome social and emotional issues.

“(Bamigbade’s) village has one of the lowest rates of academic success,” Grasinger said. “Many of the youth, especially the female youth, drop out of school and don’t go for further studies. He saw mentoring as a way to help connect them with someone who would be able to provide that positive influence and guidance for them to hopefully finish school and maybe go on to a career.”

The two decided to apply for a Reciprocal Exchange grant that would allow for Grasinger to travel to Africa for a week to help to start a mentoring program in Benin.

Grasinger and Bamigbade applied for the fellows grant through the U.S. government and IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board). They first applied in October 2018 and did not receive the grant, but were successful in a second application they submitted in January. Around March or April, Grasinger was notified that the application was accepted, and she started the process of working on the materials for the Benin program.

She started building program materials from what she knew of Africa from her Peace Corps work.

Grasinger applied to a master’s international program at App State — that is no longer available — where students could get a master’s and go into the Peace Corps simultaneously. She spent two years in Uganda, Africa, conducting different projects and teaching at a village teacher’s college.

“I had a big focus on girls’ empowerment,” Grasinger said. “That’s why I had a strong drive to set up the mentoring program in Benin because I knew the importance of empowering the females to take charge and succeed in the area they were interested in.”

The mentoring program she helped build for Benin was originally intended to be for only girls, but Grasinger and Bamigbade decided to expand it to boys as well to make it a co-ed program. Grasinger catered the mentoring materials to the needs of the village, and took into account issues the village’s youth may be facing, boundaries that needed to be laid down for mentors and mentees and how best mentors could help the youth.

Grasinger had to be prepared for any scenario that could happen with the program, as she said there wouldn’t have been any instruction aid beyond what she brought with her across the world.

“There was going to be no electricity or anyway to access to information once I got there — no computer or projector to give them to look at the materials,” Grasinger said.

Grasinger created workbooks for mentor/mentee pairs to complete, as well as conducted activities. She added that the language most often used in Benin is French, and there was a language barrier as that’s not a language she’s fluent in. Grasinger conducted trainings with the help of a translator, as well as Bamigbade helping to give instruction as well, she said.

The Benin program developed 21 mentor/mentee pairs in the week that Grasinger was there, with 35 other youth who were still seeking a mentor. Grasinger said Bamigbade established a goal of creating 100 mentor/mentee pairs.

Grasinger said she was “blown away” by the community of support in Benin and how the people there were on board with the idea of mentoring.

“They all believed that it was the power of their own people coming together and working with the youth (that was) going to bring them up in their society,” Grasinger said. “Which I think is a message we try to get across a lot here, but it’s not always as well received. But there, it was mind blowing how powerful mentoring seemed to be for them and them wanting to work toward it to improve their own community.”

Additionally, she said it was beautiful to see the children be excited about talking with their mentors when often in society children — especially females — are more subservient and aren’t always able to express themselves.

“This gave them the opportunity to be who they were and have somebody who accepted them for their personality and their interests,” Grasinger said.

Grasinger gave credit to her coworkers at WYN for helping with the process of building the program materials as well as allowing her the flexibility to travel to Africa for the work. She added that Bamigbade was a large part of the creation of the program and recruitment of the volunteers.

For more information about the Western Youth Network and its mentor program, visit www.westernyouthnetwork.org.

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