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A Salute to Everyday Mentors

September 05, 2011 By By Dana Yost, Minnesota 2020 Contributor

A recent development on ever-developing Facebook is the spread of what could be called nostalgia web pages.

People with common backgrounds or experiences form a Facebook “group” and create a page dedicated to memories about topics ranging from the town where they grew up, their college years, and regional rock bands they once followed, among others.

I am a member of a group called “You Know You Grew Up Near Minneota if …” Members are invited to fill in the rest of the sentence with a specific Minneota memory.

Minneota is a small southwestern Minnesota town. It had a population of 1,320 in the 1970s, when I was growing up. In the 2010 Census, its population was 1,392—down from a peak of close to 1,500 in the 1980s—but still making it one of a very small number of southwestern Minnesota towns whose population increased from forty years ago. (Cottonwood, a nearby town is another).

Sustaining population when almost every town or city in the region around you is losing it is rare, worth applause and, probably, study. But that is not my aim today.

Rather, I find curious and compelling one of the topics on “You Know You Grew Up Near Minneota if…” and it’s a possible factor for why Minneota has sustained population over the years:

The topic is the role that concerned and committed adults can play in shaping the minds of a community’s young people, not just in the short-term, such as when a coach snaps at a ballplayer to keep his chin strap on, but over the course of their lives.

The word for it, if there is a specific word, is mentor.

It doesn’t have mentoring in a formal role, such as through an organization like Big Brothers, Big Sisters (although they clearly have positive effects), but can be done informally simply in relationships that are nurtured between adult and young person.

The Minneota nostalgia Facebook page has 313 members, pretty good for a town its size. The other day, someone asked members to name their favorite teacher or teachers. Thirty-nine people responded, naming twenty-one teachers — with some teachers getting repeat votes.

An English teacher was remembered for reading The Minister's Black Veil to her class, while wearing the veil. A high school theater director was remembered for having her cast run around the high school gym and chat "Around the Rough and Rugged Rock the Ragged Rascals Ran" to get ready for 6 a.m. play practice.

Others were simply remembered for being cool: make a positive impression on a youth, you may be surprised how long they hold on it.

Another poster on the Minneota Facebook page paid tribute to a different group of mentors, neither teachers nor traditional community leaders.

He listed a series of men and women in blue-collar jobs, and others soon weighed in—naming mechanics, construction workers, the lawn mower repair man, café workers, electricians—the kind of people, said the man who started the post, “who made Minneota what it was.”

That man used to work side-by-side with a couple of the auto mechanics when he was a teen. He later owned his own auto repair business and served several years on the Minneota City Council, feeling an obligation and a desire to give back the way those older men had given to him.

Which gets to the larger point: Even today, I think we can still reach kids when they are young enough that positive actions will leave an impression. The kids may not know it at the time, may not appreciate it when they are in college (even if it led them to the degree they receive), but by the time they are adults fully engaged in society, those early encounters may kick in, affect their lives and enrich the lives of their communities.

A prominent study by Art Rolnick, of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, about a decade ago spelled out precisely the impact—financially and culturally—to society of investing in early-childhood education.

Doing so costs some money at the outset, but saves far more money in return: Kids who benefit from early-childhood education are much less likely to land in the criminal justice system, end up as drug abusers or slipshod employees—all of which costs us heavy.

They will, instead, likely be better-educated and more productive in the workplace and their communities.

In my current home, Forest City, Iowa, a town of about 4,300 people and home to the nation’s leading RV manufacturer, Winnebago Inc., a formal program to bring members of the business community into mentorship roles with high school students has been given a high profile through the involvement and influence of Ray Beebe, the chief legal counsel at Winnebago.

My son, who as college student was a mentor to an elementary student with Asperger’s syndrome, recently took a job with Lutheran Social Services in Sioux Falls, S.D., where his role will be to recruit and coordinate an in-school mentoring program, mainly pairing college students with younger students who can benefit by spending time with someone outside their family they can look up to.

Formal, informal, accidental, deliberate. However it is done, I think there is a strong case to be made for adults to take time from our own lives and acknowledge, support, visit with, and perhaps pass along some knowledge to young people.

I also see this—especially the posts about all the teachers who influenced many Minneota natives—as a reminder that public policy on everything from rural development to leadership development to business growth and community renewal efforts (both rural and urban) must keep education in the formula.

Dana Yost is a long-time southwestern Minnesota journalist and author.

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