The Appalachia Mentoring Project gives at-risk students positive influences

Published: Jan. 7, 2019 at 6:56 PM EST
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Appalachia Mentoring Project Executive Director Jennifer Cooney says a couple years ago she and her husband were trying to pinpoint how they can help at-risk kids and teens in their area.

She said they soon realized the issue was the lack of mentoring programs to give students the personalized relationships they need.

"Inner-cities do, metropolitan areas do, there is a friend of mine that works with a program in Lexington. And, of all the places in the nation, why don't we have a strong mentoring in Appalachia? That is what's missing," says Cooney.

She says six months later, Appalachia Mentoring Project founder Ken Merrifield came to Cooney's church, sparking her interest to get involved with local students who are at-risk.

The AMP program helps identify students who are in need of positive influence, due to a lack of positive relationships at home, pairing them with mentors to help break cycles in their lives.

After meeting Merrifield, Cooney says she immediately began leading the ministry at her church, and now trains mentors for the program.

"Immediately I knew, this is what I've been looking for. And this is the answer," Cooney says.

Peter Vanacore, President of the Christian Association of Youth Mentoring, works with churches in 47 states across the country.

He says while the need is the same everywhere he goes, he says the thing about kids in Appalachia that stunned him and drew him to Knox and Bell Counties was the sheer lack of positive relationships.

"Sixty percent of kids go home everyday to a home where there are no biological parents. I really didn't believe that, because that was statistic was so outrageous to me, it's scary," says Vanacore.

He says he believes the numbers are due in-part to the high numbers of incarcerated parents and homes needed for the kids in the region.

Vanacore says one important aspect for volunteers to realize is that you don't need to preach to the children. By seeing positive influences, they will begin to ask questions on their own.

"We would like kids to explore and reach their God-given potential. We want to see them develop academically, emotionally, physically spiritually. So that they can be the type of person that they really want to be," says Vanacore.

Corbin Primary School Principal Travis Wilder says he sees these statistics everyday, but the mentoring program is giving students the one-on-one attention they need to be on the right path.

Wilder says the need for mentors is not only in his school. Every school has students the program could benefit.

"We as a school, we can just now connect kids to mentors and that is powerful," Wilder says.

The program teaches and pairs students and mentors, based on their similarities, or goals of the student.

Appalachia Mentoring Project administrators say volunteers are needed and encourage those interested to go