The Demeter Project: Community Mentors
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by Synapse Learning Design, Andrew Epstein

Life experience is the gift that a group of women gave students as part of a mentoring program called The Demeter Project. Their time, stories, and genuine interest in mentoring were the only costs of the project. The project was founded in Seattle by Jennifer New, who, after finishing her teaching certificate, wanted to work with gender issues. "I was thinking really big. I envisioned a center where women and girls met for tutoring and mentoring sessions; where teachers came for training or to use library resources; where summer camps could be held. But I didn’t have the money for that. So I thought about what I could do for zero dollars and hit on Demeter, named for the Greek goddess who saved her daughter Persephone from the underworld."

New began by organizing a panel of women to speak at several schools. After one Q&A-style presentation, a high-school girl approached her and said she really liked hearing from the women but wondered why it was a one-time event.

Demeter Group Taking these words to heart, New created a longer-term interaction between community women and girls.

Women remembered their own difficulties as adolescents and were enthusiastic to help.
Helping balance life issues

Demeter brings a group of women to a school over the course of a semester to work with the same girls. Each session has a topic involving mental-emotional health, physical health, relationships, and education-work issues. The goal is for the girls to understand how these issues are interconnected. "I remember as a kid feeling like my life was made up of these discrete boxes," says one Demeter adult participant. "I didn’t understand that feeling bad about the way I looked or my parents’ divorce had bearing on other parts of my life."

Katy Maynard, a math teacher at an alternative middle school with a block schedule and team-teaching approach, signed on to host the first Demeter project, and New began to put out feelers for volunteers. Within two weeks nearly 75 women had signed up.

New was astounded by the response. Women she’d never met began calling her to see how they could get involved. The group included graphic designers, yoga instructors, small business owners, a professional basketball player, health workers, chefs, librarians, graduate students, and high-tech workers. They ranged in age from early twenties to late fifties and mirrored the racially and ethnically diverse school population. Women remembered their own difficulties as adolescents and were enthusiastic to help, even if it meant taking time out of busy schedules in the middle of a workday.

Ten women were chosen for the first semester. They worked in pairs and were assigned a small group of girls with whom they met every two to three weeks. Short, lively activities and discussion points were assigned in order to ease interaction. Some of the girls held back more than others, though Maynard said that they talked a lot when the women left, abuzz with stories and happy to have the attention of successful adults.

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