Bolinas author recounts tales of mentorship and teen growth

09/03/2015

This is the first in a two-part book review series on mentorship.

In Bolinas resident Linda Mornell’s new book, Forever Changed, she describes her experience running Summer Search, a successful program she founded principally for low-income, high-risk high school students. The book, rather than emphasizing statistics about the program’s impact, provides a very personal series of stories about how the program changed some participants as well as the effect of these interactions on Mornell. As she expresses it, there is a struggle between those who want hard data and those concerned about personal impact. She is not a number cruncher. The stories illustrate different facets of the impact of Summer Search and its newer sister program, College Success.

Mornell started the nonprofit on little more than a hunch. Her children attended a high school where many of their classmates were white, well-to-do high achievers. One day she casually observed a lonely African-American scholarship student in front of the school. Mornell, who had been a psychotherapist for 20 years, speculated that the teenager could profit from a demanding summer program away from home. She had witnessed her own children’s growth after such programs; she wondered if a similar program for the youngster she was watching would also be very helpful. This chance observation was the catalyst for the multi-city program she initiated.

Mornell recalled her own children’s experience with programs like Outward Bound and The National Outdoor Leadership School as “going for hard.” 

By making hard choices in places where no one knew them my children had the chance to stretch themselves and experiment with different identities. They learned to retell and then rewrite their stories as well as regain the confidence they had lost as a result of feeling so inadequate and academically behind in school.

She later came to appreciate other benefits that resulted from demanding summer programs, such as self-efficacy, or the belief that one can perform well even in challenging situations. But these ideas were not fully formulated when she first observed the young man who triggered her interest in programs for at-risk youth, frequently from ethnic and racial minorities.

The heart of Summer Search Program is what Mornell calls “insight mentoring.” Currently, 157 trained mentors are asked to make at least a three-year commitment so they can follow students from the time they are referred to the program through their senior year. Each mentor is expected to work with 30 students at a time. 

Mornell identifies four basic components of Summer Search’s mentoring process:  

Listen: Be patient. Take the time to get to know a person by putting yourself in his or her shoes.

Expand: Instead of giving advice and solutions to extremely complicated problems, get more information.

Question: Ask why, not to control or to fix, but to understand.

Wait: Slowly, carefully begin working together to look inward for insight.

The mentor’s work begins when a high school staffer, such as a teacher or counselor, refers promising candidates. Summer Search conducts in-depth interviews and asks students to write short personal essays about themselves. If accepted, the program seeks out scholarships for them. But the program also emphasizes students taking the initiative to stay in contact with Summer Search. Many drop out before they complete the enrollment process.

During the school year, Summer Search reinforces the progress made in the summer. It arranges fall and spring gatherings, encouraging students to speak to the assembled groups, as well as spring picnics that include a three-mile run in less than 30 minutes to insure that participants maintain their physical strength. Students are also encouraged to call their mentors each month. During senior year, Summer Search works with students to help them apply to colleges and obtain scholarships. 

Since it started in 1989, the program has spread across the country. There are now Summer Search programs in San Francisco, the North Bay, Silicon Valley, New York City and Philadelphia, and each locale has its own organizational staff and mentors. The national organization’s staff oversees some aspects of the regional programs and helps finance them. 

There has been an exponential growth in the number of participants. There are almost 1,500 hundred students currently participating in Summer Search. Additionally, nearly 3,000 participate in the College Success Program, a newer endeavor that works with Summer Search students during their senior year and after they graduate from high school and enter college. In the North Bay alone, 350 teens take advantage of the College Success program.

At West Marin’s only high school, Tomales High, just a small number of students have participated in Summer Search. Those familiar with Summer Search feel that more of the school’s low-income students who struggle, particularly from Latino families, could benefit from the program. They hope that the school will begin to refer more students. The high school once had a robust mentorship program, but it has languished since the retirement of its organizer, Jim Patterson. With the arrival of a promising new school counselor, the mentorship program and other outreach activities may be revived. Mornell’s description of how youth have participated in Summer Search—and the importance of mentorship in cultivating a student’s potential—can be instructive in renewed efforts to help at-risk students at Tomales and other schools.

Linda Mornell will discuss Forever Changed at the Point Reyes Presbyterian Church on Sept. 9 at 7 p.m.; she will be joined by Summer Search participants and staff. This is the first in a series of events on mentorship organized by Point Reyes Books. Next month, on Oct. 9 and 10, the bookstore is sponsoring a workshop on mentoring for adults led by authors Peter Forbes and Helen Nearing. 

Herb Kutchins is a professor emeritus at California State University, Sacramento, and had a varied career organizing social welfare and criminal justice reform. He lives in Inverness Park.