Area residents are working hard to build a rapport with local children in an effort to keep them in school through a program called SMILES (SouthCoast Mentoring Initiative for Learning, Education and Service).

In 2003, leaders in the faith, business and education communities of New Bedford got together to find a way to address the chronic high dropout rate. states that, "Fall River and New Bedford produced four-year cohort dropout rates of 31.8 percent and 26.8 percent, respectively, for the class of 2008."

This meeting resulted in SMILES mentoring program. "Mentoring is something that is super easy to do," says Program Director Aaron Hubley, "but it yields really powerful results."

The thing that sets this program apart from organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters is that all the mentoring takes place at schools. "We're trying to provide these kids with a positive role model," Hubley says.

Edison Cruz attends Normandin Middle School and was paired with his mentor, retiree Edward Rogers. "I was excited and nervous because I hadn't had a mentor for a while," Cruz admits.

"He is here for me and takes time out of what he does to come and talk to me," Cruz says regarding Rogers. "That's cool."

Rogers was asked to join the program five years ago by Jim Mathis. "Growing up I had quite a few mentors myself," Rogers says, "people who helped me along the way when I was going to school and it's time to give back."

The rapport these two have together is very easy to see, and it obviously means the world to both Cruz and Rogers to have formed the bond they share between them.

"It's a learning experience," Rogers says. "Edison teaches me things and I teach him things," referring to card games he's learned from his young friend.

Rogers is quick to brag on Cruz as well. "Edison's a very modest child. He used to be the president of his last class. He's very much involved and... is in different programs here at the school."

The most helpful part of the mentorship, according to Cruz, is that Rogers "helps guide me in the right direction. He tells me what is right and wrong and he gives me support. It's so fun having someone to be with and just hang out, play some games, talk, read, learn... express yourself and just talk about how you've been and what you've been doing."

School faculty has also noticed what a difference these mentorships have made in the lives of their students. Pamela Duphily, guidance councilor at Normandin Middle School, says that she has been involved in the SMILES program since its inception and has witnessed impressive results.

"I saw how excited the kids were to meet with this person who committed an hour every week with them," Duphily says.

She saw one student who started with the program during its first year meet with his mentor through high school, and that student actually graduated from vocational school. "This was a student who had some risk factors that we were really concerned wouldn't make it that far," she says. "I truly believe that with this person devoted to this young man's life an hour a week helped that child through and helped him graduate."

On average, SMILES boasts that the GPAs of student mentees has climbed from 2.17 to 2.27. This may not seem like a lot at first, but then consider that 60 percent of participants have also increased their reading level in just one year.

Matt Walsh is a sixth grade STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) teacher who came to Normandin Middle School via Teach For America. When he was in school, one of his mentors was Mr. Martins, his 10th grade psychology teacher. "He made me think about the world in a different way, and that's what I try to do for these kids," Walsh says.

Exposed to the SMILES mentorship program in his classroom on a daily basis, Walsh has noted the transformation students have with a mentor. One of his students, Dominic, leaves Walsh's class to go to the mentorship program. "I can see an attitude change within fifty minutes. It's that quick sometimes," Walsh says.

If the mentorship program wasn't around, Walsh believes that there would be much less interest in academics throughout the school community. When mentors come into the school, they provide the positive interaction that the children may not receive anywhere else. "To have that one-on-one time, that fifty minutes to an hour, where they can vent, talk about what's going on in their lives, to have someone who cares about them...puts a glow in these kids eyes within moments of visiting their mentors."

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