Pillen proposes $5 million for mentoring, childhood literacy push
LINCOLN — Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen on Monday proposed spending $5 million a year in tax dollars to create a new competitive grant program to help long-established, youth-focused organizations recruit mentors for thousands of kids.
How to become a mentor
For more information on how to volunteer, visit Mentor Nebraska and click the “Become a Mentor” tab.
The first focus of the new mentoring initiative would be on expanding the number of volunteers who spend time helping young elementary school students with reading skills.
“The goal is simple,” Pillen said. “It takes resources to be able to keep recruiting people. We have to do more. … We’re trying to make sure every Nebraskan recognizes they, as a mentor, get a 10-to-1 return by becoming a mentor and get businesses to encourage it.”
Pillen said an extra hour of reading a week would help the 25% to 30% of Nebraska students who are behind on reading proficiency, a problem made worse by pandemic-related learning loss that many students are still battling and may be for years.
“Every kid doesn’t need a mentor, but every kid in Nebraska deserves a mentor,” Pillen said. “Who’s out there from the Greatest Generation that’s retired and (can) go and start reading to first-, second- and third-graders and … help them make sure that they can be proficient?”
The grants would be available to organizations that have offered mentoring services for at least 15 years. Nine organizations participating in Pillen’s news conference Monday would qualify, including 100 Black Men of Omaha and Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
Pillen spent much of his announcement discussing his work with TeamMates, the mentoring organization founded by his former college football coach, Tom Osborne. Pillen serves on the TeamMates board. He said he and his wife, Suzanne, have both mentored students.
He said the group would receive no special treatment, when asked afterward what guardrails would be put in place to protect against favoritism in awarding the grants. He said the $5 million would be awarded to organizations based on the number of children they serve.
Osborne, the retired coach at the University of Nebraska and a former congressman, said investing money on a kid at the front end with mentoring pays off seven or nine to one. TeamMates volunteers have mentored more than 45,000 kids to date, he said.
“This is not a boondoggle,” Osborne said. “This is not a bad investment. This is an investment in the future, because the future of this state is young people.”
TeamMates CEO and fellow former Husker DeMoine Adams said his organization has a waiting list of about 1,500 students seeking a mentor. Every mentoring organization in the state faces similar gaps between need and available volunteers, he said.
The purpose of mentoring, Adams said, is to provide hope.
“We all know that hope leads to engagement,” he said. “We all know that hope increases one’s emotional intelligence. It also increases their sense of well-being. And it also impacts the students’ attendance, grades and behavior.”
Melissa Mayo of Mentor Nebraska, which connects potential mentors with organizations and people seeking mentors, said Nebraskans who know the challenges facing young people can help confront social issues and divides that feel “monumental and insurmountable.”
“The question we must answer is this: How do we turn toward each other,” she said. “Instead of thinking about what we can do to each other, we must think about what we can do for each other. … Our call to action is quite simple. It’s, ‘Join Nebraska’s mentoring movement.’”
Jason Jackson, director of the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services, said state managers and employees will be encouraged to take advantage of legal flexibility that lets them volunteer to mentor during work hours.
The state will also work to recognize employees who are generous in volunteering their time, Jackson said. Pillen said he had already spoken with the director of his Policy Research Office about employees pledging to volunteer time to mentor in local schools.
He issued a proclamation Monday making February “Nebraska Mentoring Month.”