Colby Cares About Kids: Touching Lives for 20 Years

Award-winning mentorship program cultivates transformative bond for mentors and mentees alike

By Kardelen Koldas ’15 Photography by Gabe Souza and Ben Wheeler
November 8, 2021

A spirit of community engagement and service runs deep on Mayflower Hill. Clubs, organizations, and classes enable Colbians to contribute to the Waterville community. But amongst them all, one program stands out: Colby Cares About Kids, or CCAK as it’s commonly known.

“We continue to see burgeoning interest from Colby students year after year,” said Assistant Director of Civic Engagement Paige Begley, who currently oversees CCAK. “Their enthusiasm to be mentors is genuine and encouraging.” 

This year, CCAK is celebrating 20 years of service. Since its launch in 2001, it has generated an ever-growing interest both from Colby students and the local community. A mentorship program, it essentially pairs Colby students (mentors) with local children (mentees) in grades K-8 for a one-on-one exchange. After a training period, Colby mentors visit their mentees’ schools, cultivating a transformative bond for both parties. With 13 partner schools and hundreds of mentors, CCAK is one of the largest and strongest volunteer programs in the College’s history.

Just last academic year, CCAK had 331 mentors, some of whom heard about it from classmates, the club fair, admissions tours, or even while researching Colby as high schoolers. Each year, CCAK’s information sessions attract hundreds of students. But it’s not a one-sided demand. Local teachers and parents seek out the program, too, resulting in waiting lists at all partner schools. 

How did this successful program start? The answer is very Colby-like: in an English course.

“We did something in the real world that we didn’t expect to do in freshman composition,” said Peter Harris, the Zacamy Professor of English, Emeritus, who taught the course. “That class knew that they had done something permanent for the College.” 

Photo of Peter Harris, the Zacamy Professor of English, Emeritus.
Peter Harris, the Zacamy Professor of English, Emeritus, taught the first-year English composition course that founded Colby Cares About Kids. (Photo by Gabe Souza)

Their secret sauce? Truly understanding and then addressing the community’s needs.

A longtime Waterville resident, Harris had always been attuned to local issues and included community-engagement components in his courses. In spring 2000, he tasked his composition class to research two of the community’s major needs: literacy and mentorship. Mid-semester, he learned of the Alfond Youth and Community Center’s interest in mentorship, leading the class to focus its efforts on that particular issue. 

“Programs work best if you have an interest expressed from the community,” he said. In consultation with community members and psychologists, the class began to craft a mentorship program proposal. CCAK was initially intended for at-risk children in Waterville public schools and would focus on tutoring while leaving time for play and dialogue. This approach, they hoped, would contribute to local students’ achievement and also benefit Colby students in numerous ways, such as connecting them to Waterville and encouraging positive behaviors.

“The more we worked on it, the better it seemed,” Harris said. “It seemed like it might actually happen.” And it did when they secured support from former President William “Bro” Adams.

Despite CCAK’s desire to “begin modestly” at two Waterville locations (the Alfond Youth and Community Center and the Albert S. Hall School), it was met with overwhelming enthusiasm. The Echo reported in 2001 that more than 300 students signed up for its 100 slots. “It took off,” Harris said, noting that CCAK launched at a historical moment when volunteering suddenly spread across the nation. “Every year the numbers grew.”

“I think it’s important to recognize that much of this is a student-facing, student-initiated, and student-led priority that only exists because of the enthusiasm of students. We couldn’t run this program if mentors didn’t want to be mentoring.”

Assistant Director of Civic Engagement Paige Begley

And those numbers made a significant impact. 

CCAK surveys documented that mentees’ behavior, hygiene, and schoolwork all improved. “You had kids who were in trouble or on the border of being troubled,” Harris said, “and then they were coming back across the line into being productive students.”

Quickly, but unsurprisingly, CCAK gained national recognition a year after its founding. Then-Governor Angus King gave CCAK the Governor’s Service Award for Educational Institution Volunteerism during Maine Mentoring Day in 2002. 

“Nobody could believe that it was a volunteer thing because at other schools, students were getting paid to do it,” said Harris, sporting a CCAK T-shirt from its inaugural year. Organizations like the Libra Foundation soon began to support CCAK and played an instrumental role in continuation of the program. “It was really a successful thing. In all of the years I taught at Colby, that was the thing. I was so proud.”

It has also been a prominent program at partner schools. 

Clinton Elementary School became an early CCAK site, where Teddi Blakney, a special education teacher, stepped up as site coordinator, referring mentees to the program. She believes CCAK is especially beneficial for rural schools like hers with limited access to programs and counselors. 

“There’s no place for them [kids] to go to find somebody that’s going to pay attention to just them,” she said. CCAK became “huge for kids.”  

Each year, Blakney has about 30 students paired with Colby mentors with many more on a waiting list. Colby students have been exceptional role models for her students who are “exposed to the fact that there’s a bigger world out there,” she said. A world in which they can go to college, meet people from other countries, or study abroad. “Over the years, I have kids that have graduated high school, and they still talk about their Colby mentor.”

At Clinton Elementary, the administration also recognizes the positive contributions of Colby mentors. When the school tracks struggling students’ progress, it not only keeps data on items like reading levels and test scores, but also if students have a Colby mentor. “I certainly am not the only one who considers it successful and beneficial,” she said. “I appreciate that Colby has seen the value of having their students provide community service.”

CCAK has been life-changing for Colby students, too.

Take mentor Sameera Anwar ’10. Her interest in community outreach and education made CCAK the ideal program for her. “I didn’t even think twice about it,” she said. “It was a very special time and a big part of my Colby life.” 

An Echo story published Aug. 30, 2011
The Echo, Colby’s student-run newspaper, has published many stories about CCAK’s positive contributions to the campus community and Central Maine, including this piece from Aug. 30, 2011.

The program also helped her transition into Colby and Waterville. “There are so many stresses of coming to a new place and the first year of college and navigating that,” said Anwar, a UWC Scholar from Bahrain. CCAK eased those challenges and became a fun, meaningful escape. 

Mentoring throughout her Colby career, Anwar’s first match was Quay, an imaginative, caring, and patient fourth grader. The pair played games and had thoughtful conversations. When Quay moved to Florida, Anwar’s new mentee was an energetic boy, Ronnie. 

Anwar’s time with her two mentees changed her career path from working in education policy to classroom teaching. “The energy that I got from the kids was so empowering,” she said. “The learning I get from interacting with young people is unparalleled.”

Now a middle school humanities teacher in Colorado, Anwar draws deeply on her CCAK experiences. “At the end of the day, education is about building relationships and fostering growth that way,” she said. CCAK’s one-on-one model showed her a powerful way to connect. “I try to bring that to my classroom, our education spaces, whenever possible.”

From Anwar’s time to the present, CCAK hasn’t lost its impact or momentum. 

“There was one time … [when my mentee] was sick and had to go home from school. I remember hearing he was really upset because it was the day I was supposed to come and visit, so it’s little moments where you realize how much of an impact you’re actually making.”

Ben Stone ’19, former CCAK mentor, who still stays in touch with his mentee, Noah

Rather, the program grew to expand its reach beyond kids with behavioral issues. “I don’t believe there’s any human being who wouldn’t benefit from having a mentor, whether you are an adult or a child,” said Begley, who has been supporting the program since the Office of Civic Engagement began overseeing it three years ago. 

CCAK also expanded its training to better prepare Colby mentors. In addition to a semester-long new-mentor training program, a continuing-education training series enables all mentors to learn about topics of their choice. That series was established with support from a long-time CCAK supporter, the Borman Family Foundation, where Don Borman ’72 serves as one of the directors and has offered wise counsel and innovative ideas for the program’s continued success. 

“They’ve done an absolutely phenomenal job of improving the program over the past couple of years and really just making it more organized, more meaningful for us to have a better and bigger impact,” said Angela Biron ’22, a current CCAK mentor. 

Biron sought out CCAK in her first semester after learning about it on an admissions tour. Coming from rural Vermont, she wanted to spend time with Waterville children, who, she believes, grow up like she did. She also wanted to be a part of the local community and learn from kids. 

Since then, she has been Alexius’s mentor. The two would usually meet during recess, have lunch together, play, or read. “It’s a lot of fun. It feels really good to do something positive,” she said. “It’s also really nice to get off campus for a while and do something out of the routine.”

When the pandemic hit, CCAK went remote. In lieu of in-person visits, mentors wrote weekly letters to their mentees. In hers, Biron would tell Alexius about her life and send her a coloring page or a little puzzle. They’d occasionally do video calls, too. “Those are great because I could actually see and hear her and see how she was doing,” she said. The remote engagement allowed her to continue mentoring during her off-campus semester. 

Biron believes that what makes the program so powerful is each mentor-mentee pair and their ability to shape their relationship over time. Multiplying that College-wide adds to the program’s strength.

To further contribute to its impact, she’s also a CCAK Mentor Leadership Committee member, representing her schools and shaping the program’s future.

“I was pleasantly surprised by how personal it [CCAK] was. … I thought, ‘How can they have this many people participating in something meaningfully?’ but it actually was the case.”

Florence Kane ’24, a current CCAK mentor at James H. Bean School in Sidney, Maine

Another CCAK leader and mentor is Peter Morariu ’22, who joined the program as a sophomore.

In his time with his mentee, an 8th grader at Waterville Junior High School, Morariu believes he became a more mature person. “I think at any given time, people can be both mentors and mentees,” he said. “When you realize that there are people who look up to you, it puts an added responsibility for how you act, how you carry yourself in things you do.”

He also realized the importance of mentoring, which instilled in him a desire to expand it beyond Colby. This summer, he worked to recruit mentors for a new after-school mentorship program for elementary schoolers, taking shape at Waterville’s Alfond Youth and Community Center.

“Having positive role models in your life is never really a bad thing,” he said, as those can often inspire positive behaviors. “That’s why I think CCAK, and mentorship in general, can and does have a very positive impact on the community.”

Previous Colby Magazine stories highlighting CCAK:

No Time to Say Goodbye” by Eliza Dean ’22, Spring 2020

He’s a Boy and, Yes, He’s Special” by Margie Weiner ’12, Winter 2011

Better to Give: A surge in community service reflects Colby tradition and national trends” by Gerry Boyle ’78, Spring 2002