More than 2,000 students attend Baldwin Whitehall Senior High School—720 of those students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, requiring a household income of $51,338 or less for a family of four. While most of the students are white, 13% of students are Asian. This represents the large number of immigrant and refugee families living in the South Hills who have immigrated to Pittsburgh from Asian countries. The largest population of immigrants and refugees in the region hail from Nepal/Bhutan and Burma.
As a trusted human services agency in the South Hills, SHIM established the Youth Mentoring program in 2011 as an after-school program geared towards foreign-born teens in the Baldwin Whitehall School District. Many of the students attended SHIM’s After School program, and there was a need for homework help and enriching activities to students in grades 6-12. Since then, the program has worked with more than 1,000 students.
With a focus on giving voice to the unique experiences of refugee and immigrant families, SHIM provides a safe space for students to be themselves without societal expectations or peer pressure negatively affecting their experiences. This is especially meaningful for youth at an age of self-discovery. SHIM’s Youth Mentoring program allows teens to explore career options and service-learning opportunities that inspire them to plan for bright futures.
While academic achievement has always been a key focus, mental health has become equally important in recent years. Last year, SHIM expanded Youth Mentoring to host a licensed counselor named Kiera from Outreach Teen and Family Services. SHIM is grateful for generous support from the Staunton Farm Foundation to fund this necessary addition to the program.
Kiera brings warmth and expertise to her new role at SHIM. She is available six hours per week and has been very intentional in building trusted relationships with students. While mental health can be a challenge in youth spaces because of social stigma, Kiera is helping to teach teens to value their mental health, and to take steps to address any struggles. Race and cultural acceptance are a major focus of Youth Mentoring. Kiera is Black and brings authenticity to her conversations with students on these topics. Most teens attending Youth Mentoring are from foreign-born families from Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries, but spend most of their school days in predominantly white settings. They welcome the opportunity to speak more comprehensively about their unique experiences with Kiera.
SHIM has also adapted Youth Mentoring to provide stable structure and predictability, by converting volunteer mentor positions into part-time paid positions. While volunteer mentors are still valued and welcomed, paid mentors commit more hours weekly to the program, allowing them to establish more consistent relationships with students. Following in the footsteps of Youth Mentoring’s coordinator Susie, SHIM’s most recent AmeriCorps member Alison returned to the program as a part-time staff. She and the students are thrilled to be reunited!
The need for Youth Mentoring has grown as students from low-income households work to recover from online learning deficits sustained during the pandemic. SHIM has seen the gap in educational equity widen, as teachers feel pressure to make up academic losses experienced during remote learning. Unfortunately, this leaves vulnerable students even further behind, as schools have few resources to invest in students who need extra support. “That’s why it’s so important for us to be a supplemental addition to their education,” says SHIM’s Children and Youth Director Mary Pannier. “We have an ideal vision and want to make it the very best program it can be.” SHIM is seeing more consistent and higher numbers of attendance than in the past, reflecting Youth Mentoring’s vital role in the community as a safe space for teens to come to receive the nurturing support the need.
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