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Mentors Offer a Special Connection to Students

Norwalk Mentor Program Director Jackie Effren always wanted to work in a field that gave back to the community. She feels strongly that her position does just that.

“I have to work for something that means something to me,” Effren says in her office at the Human Services Council. She has been there since 2009, when the council took over the Norwalk Mentor Program from the Norwalk Board of Education.

The program began in 1986 under the guidance of Dr. Susan Weinberger. The concept of having mentors meet and interact with mentees in the school environment was a bold new direction at the time. Now the program has been copied across the nation.

By 2009, budgets were tight and the school board was having a hard time justifying the line item in its budget. The council stepped in and took over the program as a nonprofit initiative with support from area companies such as GE, FactSet and foundations like the Norwalk Children's Foundation.

That year, it hired Effren as the program director. She was coming from working as campaign manager on the losing bid by U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays for re-election. When Effren found her way to the Human Service Council, Shays' loss became Norwalk’s gain.

The mentoring program has 247 matched mentors now, though Effren says they always need more. Candidates go through background checks and training before they are matched with students. They give one hour a week to meet with their mentees.

“We really could use more male volunteers,” Effren says. “For some reason, women seem more willing to sign up. Also we tend to have more male mentees in need of a mentor.”

Effren said the Norwalk Mentor Program is not about tutoring. The interactions with mentors and mentees are about connections and self confidence more than about course work. When it was compared with a Big Brothers and Big Sisters initiative within a school, she says that is an excellent way to look at it.

“It’s about helping a student feel loved,” Effren says.

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