Leading by example

By Pat Sunderland

Leading by example | Partners, youth

For 20-plus years, Betsy Shepherd has been the face of Partners in Delta County.

Her title is currently program director for Partners of Delta, Montrose and Ouray County, but during her career, she says she has done it all.

The mission of Partners Mentoring is to create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships between positive adult role models and youth facing challenges in their personal, social and academic lives. The more good adult role models kids have in their lives, the better choices they make as they get older, Betsy explains. Partners is also involved in drug/alcohol prevention programs for youth and organizes activities for kids who are waiting for a match.

Betsy estimates she's made 500 or more matches over the years, and has served as a mentor herself to about 10 teenage girls. Being a mentor is all about being a good listener, she says. The first step is developing a bond with a child, and the best way to do that is often through an activity like rafting or bowling.

"Someone once commented that all you guys do is have fun. That's a good thing!" Betsy says. "How easy is it to bond with someone when they're having fun! Then, you can get into a talk about the choices the child made yesterday in school, when she got suspended."

A good mentor has views, but doesn't announce them right away, Betsy explains. They let kids talk and try to figure out things on their own. Of course, some subjects can be touchy. Then the mentor might respond by saying, "I'd be more comfortable having your mom talk about this issue."

"We're not doing this because we think parents need to be replaced. That is not what this is about," Betsy says. "We're just trying to add a good adult friend who maybe gives mom a break for a couple of hours and the child gets a chance to do something they might not ordinarily do."

Kids come into the program through referral, with the great majority of referrals coming from a teacher or counselor. Adult mentors are found throughout the community, and a big part of Betsy's job is networking, being approachable, and nurturing partnerships.

"I have mentors who have worked for me since I started and one who's been here 26 years," Betsy says. "These older mentors are just incredible and they understand their roles so well. They're not a replacement parent; they always want to get along with the families. We get so much more when we get along, in life in general."

Of the hundreds of matches she's seen, there are 10 or 15 Betsy calls "sparkly special," because years later, the mentor and mentee are still in touch and the relationship is still growing. "That's the pleasure I get out of this," she says.

Betsy was born and raised in Denver and earned a teaching certificate from CSU, majoring in history with a minor in political science. She taught for a couple of years, but after going to school nonstop she decided to take a break. She explored courses at a vocational school outside of Fort Collins and that's where she met Gayle Davidson.

"We started a small business with a couple of other gals called Mother Nurture, taking care of plants in banks and restaurants," Betsy explains. "That was the beginning of my lifelong relationship with Gayle."

Eventually, they went their separate ways. Betsy moved to Wyoming where she met her husband Kurt. Gayle was hired as executive director of Partners in Delta County. In 1990, Betsy and Kurt moved to Grand Junction and Gayle started a three- to four-year campaign to get Betsy to come to work for her. Betsy joined Partners as a case manager in 1996.

"I think Gayle always thought this job changed her life, and I certainly feel like it did mine."

Betsy had been managing a restaurant in Grand Junction, so working for a nonprofit was a totally new experience. "I had lots to learn, and I'm still learning," she says.

She continues to find the work interesting and challenging. She says she has grown to love the Delta area and values the relationships she's developed through the years.

"My husband Kurt and I have a great life," she says. They live north of Delta on a five-acre spread with horses, cats and dogs. Although Kurt works in Grand Junction, he's been very supportive of Betsy's work with Partners and of the organization itself.

Partners of Delta, Montrose and Ouray County is one of seven affiliates around the state. Each affiliate is dedicated to mentoring, but the approach varies from region to region.

For instance, in 1999 Gayle Davidson realized the local program was not attracting older kids, so she came up with a program called Art Partners for teens 12 and up. "Those kids still get mentoring, but they also have a chance to learn a craft or a skill, like painting, singing or cake decorating -- anything that allows children to spend more time with adults and feel rewarded by it," Betsy explains.

Art mentors are asked to commit three hours a week for 12 weeks. Senior Partners are asked to commit an average of three hours a week for a minimum of one year. At the conclusion of that year, the partnership is reviewed and if the two want to stay together, they stay together.

"If an adult comes to me and says they don't want to finish, I remind them they made a commitment," she says. "That's role modeling.

"If the mentor is done at the end of the year that's fine, because they've done what they said they'd do."

Many times adults will ask for time to decide if they can fit the commitment into their schedule. "I respect that a lot, because if I match a child and the adults decide they don't want to do it, the child is hurt more than they were before," Betsy says. "That's the serious part of being involved in Partners, but there are lots of fun parts too."

In addition to supporting partnerships in Delta County, Betsy supervises case managers in the three-county area served by Partners of Western Colorado, and works with the state affiliate to standardize policies across the state.

As for Partners' efforts to prevent drug and alcohol use among our youth, Betsy is a certified prevention specialist. She is involved with Drug Free Delta County, the Youth Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, and CET -- the community evaluation team that identifies and recommends appropriate services for adolescents in the court system. She follows the lead of Gayle Davidson, who believed that wherever children are, Partners should be there to let the community know they care about these kids.

Partners also has a teen advisory board comprised of high-functioning kids who have been trained in substance abuse prevention. "We ask these teens to go talk to the kids in the middle and elementary schools, because they'll listen to them," Betsy says.

New this year is school-based mentoring at Hotchkiss K-8 and Paonia Middle School. An AmeriCorps volunteer is working with five students at each school, supporting them in class and planning after-school activities. "We're learning as we go with this program," Betsy says, "but I am hoping we can continue next year and perhaps expand to Delta Middle School."

Her job has led her "into all kinds of interesting relationships with folks," she says. "It's a lifestyle that I love. I love running into folks I know, and kids I've worked with."

Kids grow up and move on, and that's exactly what Betsy hopes will happen, but it's still a great feeling to run into them at the grocery store or the recreation center. "Kids don't need that constant adult caring as much as they used to, but they still like to remind you how you impacted their life in one way or another.

"For my partners, it was through horseback riding. Kurt and I never had children; we've always worked with other people's children. I would say what surprises me about Partners is that I am as passionate about it as I was first started. I feel supported by the community and by the incredible people who are mentors.

"This is a great organization and I'm very proud to have had a chance to see a lot of kids grow up."