MEA Mentorship Creates Lifelong Bonds

February 20, 2020 | Education | Jeni Schmidt

Leaving home to attend boarding school can be challenging. Despite being surrounded by your friends, sometimes you just need someone to talk to one on one — to help you gain perspective, to see things from a different angle or to share advice. 

The idea of creating a mentorship program for the girls at Mount Ellis Academy (MEA) in Bozeman, Montana, was born as Yvette Wilkins and Ingrid Stuart saw this need. Stuart, a teacher at MEA at the time, and Wilkins, wife of former principal Darren Wilkins, thought about how hard it must be for some of these girls to be away from home. They saw some girls struggling and felt they needed a “mom” to talk to. Some young ladies didn’t have strong family ties. Stuart and Wilkins conceived of the idea of asking local women from the academy church to become mentors for these young girls away from home.

“We thought about our church. We could get together, and each of us could focus on one girl. In this way, everyone can help, and nobody falls between the cracks,” remembers Stuart.

What began in 2007 as a way to meet the needs of young girls away from home has gradually become a stalwart part of life at MEA. Every fall for the past 12 years, Girls’ Weekend takes place at the Bear Canyon Ski Lodge. The girls know that, by the time the weekend has concluded, they will have met and bonded with a mentor, chosen especially for them. 

The process begins with recruiting mentors. There is a core group of women who faithfully sign up year after year, and each God provides new mentors to make up for attrition.

Both the women and the young ladies are given interest surveys to help match mentors with mentees. The mentorship leaders meet with Leisel Rogers, MEA girls' dean, to prayerfully assign mentors.

The primary purpose of the initial retreat is for the girls to get to know their mentor and the other mentors. A speaker attuned to the needs of teens is invited. The getaway includes time for singing, inspiration and bonding. The much-anticipated weekend is filled with good food, laughter and talk.

After the weekend, the mentors reach out to the girls with notes of encouragement, freshly baked cookies, trips to town, dinner at their homes and care packages. They make sure the girls know they have someone who cares about them, but they also let the girls decide how much involvement they need.

For Judy Yang, a sophomore from China, the mentorship program is vital and provides a surrogate parent. “The mentor program is beautiful," Yang explains. "I like my mentor. She takes me to town. We hangout and eat super-good food.” 

As a group, the mentors and mentees get together four to five times throughout the year. During a brunch, boxes are put together for Operation Christmas Child. The group enjoys Friday night vespers, game nights, self-defense classes, a downtown scavenger hunt and other events that vary from year to year. The events always aim to inject both fun, empowerment and spiritual community into the girls’ lives at MEA.

“More than anything, it is the fostering of relationships between the girls and mentors,” says Stuart. “Girls that are out of state or country often spend breaks with their mentors. Before this year’s Christmas banquet, there was a mix of moms and mentors in the dorm helping girls get ready for the event. It adds a lot to the ‘family feel’ already present on campus. My girl and I text each other throughout the week just to check in or to share encouragement.”

“I am Facebook friends with all of the girls I have mentored,” adds Kebrina Vinglas, a local community member and a longtime mentor. “I have been to baby showers, received wedding invitations. I have several girls that I can text or pick up the phone and call and say, ‘I really want to celebrate this with you right now.’”

What typically starts as a relationship between mentor and girl generally ends with the girls being pulled into an entire surrogate family. Jasmine Ramirez, MEA sophomore, shares, “My mentor makes me feel special and shows she cares for me … treats me like a younger sister.” 

While not every participant forms relationships beyond casual, all of the mentees know someone is there if they need them. And, most amazingly, girls have graduated from MEA and eventually become mentors themselves, creating a full circle of giving back. 

Another most extraordinary byproduct of this mentorship program is the fostering of deeper, familiar relationships in the community. Friendships extend from the mentors, to the girls, to their girls’ friends and to the girls’ families when they come to visit. And many of these relationships continue on beyond the years the girls spend at MEA, as they grow into young adults and return to visit Bozeman.

At Mount Ellis Academy, the challenge of growing up and leaving home to attend boarding school is softened and strengthened with special attention from a community of women intent on making a difference and, in the process, creating lifelong bonds.