Although the COVID-19 pandemic has limited Bowdoin students’ ability to form and foster connections in the Town of Brunswick, Saul Cuevas-Landeros ’23 is still determined to create opportunities for students to engage with the community.
This year, Cuevas-Landeros is co-leading Bowdoin Central Mentoring, a Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good program dedicated to mentoring students in the Brunswick area.
“[Volunteering] was something I did in high school,” Cuevas-Landeros said. “I think just the idea of paying it forward was really ingrained in me.”
In the past year, COVID-19 precautions in Brunswick-area schools restricted in-person mentorship, leading the McKeen Center’s school-based mentor programs to either transition online or shut down completely. Although some mentoring programs were able to transition online last year, Andrew Lardie, associate director for service and fellowship, acknowledged the loss of not having in-person bonding.
“Last year, a few of our groups were able to pivot to a virtual continuation of their program,” Lardie said. “I think that, as you wouldn’t be surprised to hear, that for both the kids being served and the volunteers, [virtual mentoring] wasn’t seen as appealing or as rewarding.”
However, with the current possibility that Brunswick-area schools will relax pandemic-related precautions on visitation, the McKeen Center hopes to facilitate relationships between Bowdoin students and Brunswick-area children again. Acknowledging the emotional toll that the pandemic has taken on kids, Lardie praises the benefits of mentees having a role model to look up to.
“It’s painful for everyone to know how much kids are being hurt by the pandemic as far as basic educational outcomes and social-emotional stuff,” Lardie said. “There are a lot of families in our local schools that have complicated situations where the students could use some extra support … All kids could use a positive relationship with a slightly older young person who they can look up to.”
Despite virtual mentoring not being an ideal format for mentors or mentees, Cuevas-Landeros learned valuable lessons from the past year and is excited to apply what he’s learned to the program this year.
“Because of COVID-19, we realized that there wasn’t really any activity in the club beyond that hour or two you’re at the school,” Cuevas-Landeros said. “We’re looking for ways in which we can engage the club members without necessarily just that one or two hour[s] of volunteering.”
After receiving a high number of signups at the club fair last Friday, Cuevas-Landeros attributes the multitude of new club members to students’ desire to create strong ties with the community again after a long run of pandemic-caused social isolation.
“This year, we actually managed to get a lot of recruits, a lot of new Bowdoin students interested. I think it’s because everyone’s just really excited for normalcy,” Cuevas-Landeros said. “That was pretty great, just being at the volunteer fair and seeing all these new faces excited to join.”
Although hopeful for the future, Lardie remains cautious when thinking about the Delta variant and its consequent effects on the program.
“There’s always a question of what’s possible and what’s safe,” Lardie said. “And so we are still in the process of waiting to hear back from most of our schools about whether and how they will continue to have mentoring.”