BANNER ELK — Staff and volunteers at Western Youth Network have been working diligently throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic to connect with the youth they serve and mentor throughout the High Country through new and innovative means.

Beginning this week, WYN will begin distributing food and other supplies to local families who are part of the Avery Mentoring Program. The funds to complete the project come courtesy of the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, which provided a $9,000 grant through the Emergency and Disaster Response Fund that will help the organization focus its program on three core areas: comfort, therapy and food security.

“I go by and see the kids we work with, and who are on our waiting list, very regularly at school. I check to see how they’re doing, making sure things are going well with their mentor and things are going well at home. But I haven’t been able to see them because of the COVID stuff,” Avery Mentoring Program Coordinator Sabena Maiden said.

However, as Maiden and her staff begin to deliver the two dozen, 17-gallon bins they have packed with treats and goodies to each of the 24 families in the program, they will at least be able to see the kids in passing as the bins are delivered.

Each bin is filled with an assortment of healthy options provided by Be Natural Market in Boone, which focuses on supplying foods that are not genetically modified and are free of high-fructose corn syrup to the community. The bins include granola bars, peanut butter, nuts and fruits as well as hand sanitizer, a mobile card game and toilet paper.

“I wanted it to be healthy, but I also wanted the kids to be able to recognize the food and not be like, ‘What is this that I’m eating?’” Maiden said light-heartedly.

The kids and families will receive the supply of food on top of blankets and hand warmers, which the kids received a short time ago. WYN also partnered with Pathways Counseling to provide therapy and support to the youth who are in mentoring programs once face-to-face counseling is allowed to resume.

“It’s been hard for the mentors who haven’t been able to see the kids,” Maiden said. “They’ve been mostly corresponding via texts, phone calls, FaceTime and that kind of stuff, but our program is meant to be one-on-one in person doing things together.”

Included in WYN’s expanded program are also opportunities to get kids and mentors reconnected with each other once in-person interactions are once again the norm.

“Because the Be Natural folks saved us so much money, we had [extra] money left over to spend, so we bought several gift passes to Sugar Creek Gem Mine. Our mentor-mentee matches like gem mining, that’s one of the favorite things to do. We also got a bunch of passes to the new Wilderness Run Alpine Coaster,” Maiden said. “We like to be able to give [our mentors] little treats because we are a volunteer organization. We were also able to buy a bunch of gas cards for our mentors, because a lot of them drive [a long way in order to volunteer].”

Western Youth Network has operated for 35 years in Watauga County and more recently in Avery County. The organization operates outreach programs to local youth, including a school-based program that sees mentors visiting local elementary schools to tutor students or simply have lunch with them. If a mentee develops a connection with his or her mentor, the mentor-mentee match will continue as the students progresses through the grade levels.

“Generally school counselors pick kids who just might need a little boost in their confidence. Maybe they’ve had a recent loss in their family, or they may be new to the area,” Maiden said.

Additionally, WYN operates a community-based program which Maiden said the organization is more well-known for and resembles the familiar Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program. WYN serves youth from six to 17 years old, and provides a role model to any child that needs one. WYN will also occasionally work with the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council to provide a child with a positive role model.

“One of my favorite referrals was a kid who is now at Avery High School. He was raised by both of his grandparents since he was born, and his grandfather, who was his main male role model and main male influence, passed away suddenly. The grandmother actually contacted us and said, ‘He lost his fishing buddy. He’s lost his male role model. He’s going to be in high school in like five minutes. I need somebody to help give him some direction,’” Maiden said.

According to Maiden, a majority of the youth in the community-based program come from single-parent homes or are in a kinship placement. WYN seeks to provide children with mentors to help put them on the right path, and the organization’s expanded program is just one more way it is using its resources and the support from the community to achieve its goal.

“We’re just so happy, and the response to blankets and stuffed animals, [the kids] were just so thrilled to be thought of. So many kids and families right now are isolated. It’s hard for everybody,” Maiden said. “It’s all come together. It’s a blessing, and its been amazing way to reach out to our families who we miss being with in-person.”

WYN is always looking for volunteers, especially ones who can lead and have a love for children. Mentors are expected to give at least eight hours a month to the program, but any additional effort is always appreciated.

For more information on Western Youth Network, click to westernyouthnetwork.org or call (828) 264-5174. The organization’s Avery office is located at 2953 Tynecastle Highway in Banner Elk.

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