Each week, seventh grader Sofia, an avid reader, can’t wait for Thursdays to arrive. That’s when she gets to talk with her mentor Betsy Michel, a Harlem Academy trustee, about the book they’re both reading. The latest is “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah.
The two have formed their own book club of sorts, with Ms. Michel mailing Sofia copies of their upcoming picks. “One of the best things about mentoring is sharing our book recommendations, reading together, and talking about the books,” says Sofia. “I love to read, and it’s nice to know that another person loves it as much as I do.”
Harlem Academy’s mentoring program matches adult volunteers with students for conversation and fun activities. Pairs normally meet in person once a week throughout the school year, but the pandemic has forced the hour-long sessions to move online. Now students and mentors meet over Zoom.
Sofia is thrilled that the mentoring program has continued despite the pandemic and says it’s needed now more than ever. “We’re all kind of isolated due to COVID-19,” she says. “We can’t be around lots of people, so I think it’s good that the program continued virtually rather than stopping altogether. I know other students feel the same way. I wish I could see Betsy in person, but I’m glad I still get to spend time with her on Zoom.”
The connection Sofia and Ms. Michel share hasn’t changed with a switch to virtual mentoring – it’s only become stronger. “I’ve been Sofia’s mentor since she was in second grade,” says Ms. Michel. "She’s gotten to know my grandkids, and I’ve gotten to know her parents. I hope we’ll be friends forever. When I mentioned to Sofia that I’ll miss mentoring her after she graduates next year, she told me, ‘We’re not going to lose touch.’”
While Sofia and Ms. Michel have definitely bonded over books, it’s not the only reason their weekly mentoring sessions are so fulfilling. “We share our points of view on things happening in the news,” says Sofia. “Sometimes we talk about my future, about high school. Betsy is really easy to talk to. She treats me like a grown-up.”
One of their favorite in-person activities was chatting while playing chess, backgammon, or Scrabble. They still share their love of challenging games through the crosswords and mazes in The New York Times’s monthly kids’ section, which Ms. Michel also mails to Sofia. “I used to bring it with me when we met in person,” recalls Ms. Michel. “We’d do some of the puzzles together and talk about the articles. Sofia loves to do the crosswords first. Now, whenever she opens the mail, she knows that I’m thinking about her.”
For Sofia, getting mail is fun and exciting but what matters most, she says, is simply having a mentor like Ms. Michel. “She’s so encouraging,” says Sofia. “I’m kind of a quiet person, and talking to her helps me open up. It’s good to be friends with someone older. You learn a lot from them. I hope I get to be a mentor someday.”