For Western Youth Network mentor Jordan Sellers, the sense of community and connection is important now more than ever while the nation faces social distancing mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Several groups — such as WYN and Mountain Alliance — are continuing to connect with youth in the county despite not being able to do so in their typical format. According to WYN’s Mentoring Program Director Angela McMann, trauma research indicates that community members can continue to harbor hope for the future in times of struggle when they show care and support for each other.

“I think it is more important than ever for the mentors and youth to stay connected during this time,” McMann said. “At a time when people physically must stay separated it is easy to fall into a feeling of emotional isolation, and we are encouraging all of our mentors to do everything they can to stay connected to their mentees.”

WYN pairs mentors with children ages of 6 and 17 in Watauga and Avery counties. During this time, mentors have helped their mentees with homework, delivered art supplies as well as sent postcards and treats. McMann said WYN staff have hosted Instagram live sessions to stay connected to the community as well as to help students with homework virtually, in addition to hosting a social hour weekly for all of its mentors.

Keeping students connected with each other during this time was something that is important for Mountain Alliance leaders, said Rachel Witmer, the Mountain Alliance program director. Mountain Alliance provides transformative experiences and support to all Avery and Watauga teenagers, regardless of means or background, through volunteer service, challenging outdoor adventure, cultural outings, after school academic support and mentorship.

Witmer said that fostering connections is a focus of Mountain Alliance’s mission, and the group wanted to find innovative ways to do that virtually. The group has offered Zoom lunch hangouts with students to find some normalcy, as Mountain Alliance allows students to eat their school lunch in its classroom to meet together.

Watauga High School freshman Zea Marty participates in the Mountain Alliance virtual meetings, and said it’s been nice seeing the faces of her classmates and Mountain Alliance leaders.

“I am super grateful for Mountain Alliance still pulling together and having these meetings,” Marty said. “It’s been really helpful just to see other people and laugh about random things, and not have to have long conversations about the crisis as much. We’re able to feel a little bit more normal.”

Mountain Alliance has offered virtual activities for students such as a scavenger hunt. Marty said students were prompted to find different items in their homes like a puzzle piece or a roll of toilet paper. Additionally, they’ve also had a show and tell session when students were able to present items that were important to them — such as artwork. Marty said she showed her classmates her book called “The Taco Cleanse,” a book she said was a funny cookbook about tacos.

Marty said she was bummed she couldn’t go on the group’s planned spring break trip to Washington, D.C. To keep students engaged, Mountain Alliance offered virtual programs for the students during the week of the break. For example, the group offered mindfulness exercises in the morning during the break to allow students a time to relax and start their day being calm and focused.

“We missed talking to students, hearing about their lives and being an outlet for them,” Witmer said. “Connections are just really important, especially right now when everyone is having to stay so physically separated.”

Mountain Alliance is offering the virtual meetings for students in both its Watauga and Avery county programs. For more information, contact Witmer at rachel@mountainalliance.org.

WYN suggests that mentors stay in touch with mentees by going on a walk while FaceTiming, playing a video game with each other, creating a music playlist together that each can listen to, planning a workout together or writing letters to each other. The group also suggested that mentor pairs can pick a book that each would read and they could discuss together.

Sellers and his 12-year-old WYN mentee, Timmy Richards, have been paired for roughly a year. Normally, Sellers and Richards like to hang out by the river or toss a football together. Sellers said it was important to let his mentee know that he still cares for him even though they can’t communicate as they normally would. Sellers said he’s called his mentee and has even dropped off a bike for him.

Sellers and Richards had a deal that if Richards finished the school year with good grades, Sellers would help him get a bike. Sellers came across a bike that would suit Richards, and decided to surprise him with it to help him get out of the house during the COVID-19 restrictions. Greeting him from the appropriate distance of six feet, he revealed the bike and said Richards was so excited and immediately started to ride it.

“While he’s being cared for and supported by his family, I still think it’s important for him to know that his mentor is still interested in making sure he’s happy and that everything is good with him,” Seller said. “I just imagine it’s a fairly isolating situation for a kid who is used to going to school every day and is used to seeing his buddies and seeing his mentor several times a week. It’s a big change.”

Wysteria White said she and her mentee — 17-year-old Jordan Rodgers — usually like to hike and have picnics together, but have resorted to seeing each other via video chat. The two recently cooked together via FaceTime. White said her mentee loves to cook, so Rodgers taught her how to cook a meal of breaded pork chops. The mentor pair also planned to stream a movie and each eat popcorn while virtually communicating.

White said it’s important for mentors to stay connected with their mentees to let them know there is still stability in their lives.

“They need to know that beyond what they’re going through, there’s definitely still hope,” White said. “We can do this together.”

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