Middlebury

50 years of individual attention

October 18, 2010

Every week about 80 Middlebury students meet one-on-one with youngsters from Addison County. They might bake cookies, go for a hike, eat in the dining hall, or pick berries, but what they do isn’t anywhere near as important as how they do it: together, without outside distractions, and wholly dependent upon each other.

This is the Community Friends program at Middlebury College, and it has been operating this way for the past 50 years.

This Saturday at 11:30 a.m., in the midst of Homecoming Weekend, alumni and friends are invited to McCardell Bicentennial Hall to celebrate a half-century of Community Friends at the College. There will be food, fun, conversation, and activities, including a Mr. Wizard Chemistry Show presented by Professor Roger Sandwick.

Started by the Counseling Service of Addison County in 1960, Community Friends at Middlebury has been called by other names over the years including Big Brother/Big Sister, School Enrichment Program, and the Volunteer Tutoring Program. But regardless of its name, Community Friends has stayed true to its mission: to be sensitive to the needs of area children and to build their self-confidence through a mentorship with a Middlebury student.

As one student said, “The kids mainly need attention and affection to permit them to hope, and to realize they have the potential to do better in school than they are doing. We try to raise their sights to show them what’s going on and what’s available.”

Another remarked, “A really valuable aspect of the program is not what we do but just the fact that we are there. It’s a little bit different: having people who care about them, who have had no contact with them before, and who have a completely different background.”

Phil Fitz '73 (right) plays a game with a local boy at an Addison County school in 1970.

These words were spoken by Middlebury students not this week or this month, but more than 40 years ago as reported in the Middlebury College News Letter (a forerunner to today’s Middlebury Magazine).

The Middlebury Campus newspaper has also documented the history of volunteer mentoring programs at the College, as in this excerpt from May 1966: “Another program has been upgrading education in the rural schools around Middlebury. Close to half the fraternities and sororities have ‘adopted’ a one-room schoolhouse, sending a delegation one afternoon per week...to enrich the curriculum.”

Or this clip from an October 1977 issue of The Campus: “The parents or guardians of the child will welcome the 'Big Brother' and realize that he can provide a special relationship for their child.”

Since 1960, an estimated 2,000 Middlebury undergrads have participated in a Community Friends program.

Today the Community Friends program is under the umbrella of the Alliance for Civic Engagement and the watchful eye of ACE’s director, Tiffany Nourse Sargent ’79, who has been associated with community service at Middlebury since her college days.

ACE’s mentoring coordinator this year is Robin Curtis ’10, who was a Community Friend as an undergraduate and says a key to matching college-student mentors with children in the community is finding their common interests. Curtis and the program’s student coordinators consider each child’s desires, the mentor’s expectations, and the recommendations of parents and counselors before making a match.

"The essence of the program is for Middlebury students and local children to just enjoy themselves in a carefree environment, to hang out and have fun," explains Curtis. "The social and academic benefits to the child are an important part that comes as a result, but they're not the thing that the actual participants are consciously driving for. It's about bonding and friendship."

The program currently involves elementary school children in Middlebury, Salisbury, Shoreham, Bridport, Cornwall, Weybridge, Bristol, and New Haven.

For more information about Community Friends or about the 50th anniversary celebration, contact Robin Curtis at rcurtis@middlebury.edu.