Being the best for our community, one student at a time

Fairview nurse Karen Rieck, left, a Friends Make A
Difference mentor, is one of many Fairview employees
who volunteer with this program. It was started in 1998 by
Fairview Lakes Medical Center staff in partnership with
local schools. Rieck is shown here with her mentee.
Oct. 23, 2013
For the 15th year—coinciding with the year Fairview Lakes Medical Center opened in Wyoming, Minn.—Fairview employees are taking part in the “Friends Make A Difference” mentoring program with students in local schools.

The program, led by Kathy Bystrom, a Fairview Community Health Outreach assistant manager, pairs hospital and clinic staff volunteers with local students to serve as positive role models for them.

“When Fairview Lakes opened in 1998, the staff wanted a way to connect with the community and, conveniently, there’s Wyoming Elementary School next door,” says Bystrom. “So, we started with the idea that we’d teach students about health, since we’re a health care organization.”

A creative approach to helping kids
As volunteers began to see how their relationships with the students helped improve the kids’ attendance, self-esteem, behavior and academics scores, the program was named “Friends Make A Difference,” and its scope expanded to provide personalized guidance for each student.

“The program is a creative, upstream approach to help kids stay healthy, rather than trying to correct things once they go wrong,” says Bystrom.

“We often work with students who may be at risk of making unhealthy lifestyle choices, including using drugs and alcohol, and those unlikely to graduate, for example.”

Mentors are asked to meet with their students once or twice a month during the students' lunch hour. Their primary responsibility is to be positive role models, but they’re also champions, cheerleaders, advocates and friends.

“The most effective mentors possess a desire to make a difference and a willingness to listen and provide guidance without judgment,” says Bystrom.

A+ report card
“The program is one of the few places that some students feel unconditionally cared about,” says a teacher who has students in the program.
The students agree; a 2013 survey reports that because the program: 

  • 77 percent of students said they feel more adults care about them.
  • 66 percent said they are able to better express their feelings.
  • 63 percent said they can trust adults more than they did before participating in the program.
  • 63 percent said they get along better with others.
  • 60 percent said their attitude toward school is better, and they are able to better express their feelings and get along better with others.
  • 84 percent of parents with students in the program said their children experienced improved self-esteem.

More than 1,000 students
The program was recognized by the Minnesota Hospital Association as an innovative community health improvement strategy, and it receives financial support from the United Way in recognition of its success.

Today, Friends Make A Difference supports 15 schools in three school districts and has more than 200 mentors, including Fairview Lakes staff and community members.

To date, more than 1,000 students have participated in the program, including four 2013 graduating seniors who had been with their mentors since elementary or middle school. And, as they had been with the students through those years, their mentors were also at their graduations.

“The positive return on investment is clear,” says Bystrom.

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