Teenagers need an adult in their world — someone who's not a parent or teacher — who will hang with them and be a nonjudgmental friend, someone they can count on and trust.
Seven years ago, a group of caring and concerned Ashland women started such a system, called Rose Circle, where they trained a corps of mentors, soon expanding it to men — people who would just "be there," not trying to fix or shape the teen's life, but basically being really good at one thing: listening as a friend.
The Rose Circle has grown a lot since 2005, with many teen "mentees" moving on to the role of mentors, themselves. The program also has been chosen as one of seven "quality-based mentoring programs" by Oregon Mentors and landed a significant grant from The Oregon Community Foundation, enabling it to expand to all cities in the Rogue Valley.
"I fell in love with Rose Circles when I was in high school. There was such pressure to do well and get off to a good college and have a boyfriend and wear the right clothes, but the mentors wouldn't pressure you at all," says Christina Jackson, a mentor at the group's Camp Luna, a four-day summer retreat for women and girls.
"It's not just a place to relax and be yourself, but also to deal with traumatic situations."
Fifth-grader Hannah Doyle calls Rose Circles "a place to relax and not worry, where people don't judge me — and they keep confidences. No one repeats anything outside the circle. You get to take a break from the hectic pace of life."
Sitting in a Rose Circle in a backyard teepee with candles burning and veils draped about, seventh-grader Lexi Tibbs notes: "I love the chance to be heard. It's nice to have many different people to go to if you're having a tough time with your family, to connect and share and also be there for other people."
"Sometimes I feel I don't have time to relax because of homework and after-school activities, so it's nice to be with friends in a Rose Circle, be yourself and be with people who really understand you and care," says fifth-grader and mentee Hana Damon-Tollenaere.
One of the founding mentors, board chairwoman Leslie Lanes, describes how there was no existing framework or guidebook, so mentors, practicing the vital skills of listening and "being there," let the process invent itself as they went along and learned.
"Women started it. We were teens once and remember what it was like to deal with cliques and the rest — heart-wrenching — and we thought, how can we offer support?"
They created a mentor training that did not focus on having the answers, says Lanes, but rather on "teaching how to listen, how to let there be space. It's amazing how much being present for a youth affects them. They don't get this from parents and teachers. The youths have a whole inherent life that no one's asking about."
Among the areas covered in the quarterly training, says Lanes, are emotional intelligence, how to describe yourself, answering questions, being silent and presenting yourself.
Mentors come from all generations — and mentees are ages 10 to 18 — so both groups get access to people of all ages, a dynamic that's likely missing from life outside the Rose Circles, says Candace Doyle, who mentors high-school girls.
"I love how we all take turns talking (using a "talking stick" they pass around), and everyone really listens and hears you," says Doyle. "I love to stop the merry-go-round and get to choose the topic and theme of what we're talking about. If you want to say something that's deep inside you, where else are you going to get that listening?"
The Oregon Community Foundation grant is $17,000 for the first year, with the invitation to reapply for similar amounts in the second and third years, says executive director Karsten Peterson, who works with executive director Amanda Tucker. The organization is expanding into Phoenix, Talent, Medford and Williams.
The thrust of Rose Circle work, says Peterson, is better communication with peers and adults, body image, self-esteem, attachment to school, confidence and less substance abuse.
"We're in an incredible growth period," says Peterson. "We have nine Rose Circles going now and hope to increase that."
The training, says Lanes, is one day for mentoring and two days for leading a circle. Subjects include reflective listening, conflict resolution and boundaries between adults and kids. Mentors must undergo background checks.
The movement is about 15 percent men and boys, and one of the first mentors, Michael Kozak, is still mentoring at Armadillo Technical School in Phoenix, where he's on his third generation of new faces.
"These are boys who don't have a good, solid, male role model," says Kozak. "The hope is that they don't get in trouble and act out their issues with school, home, girls and what to do with their loves. It's a place for them to talk, when they don't have other people to talk to."
In mentor trainings, notes Kozak, men "learn our own triggers, so we don't end up projecting our stuff on the boys."
To donate or learn more, see www.therosecircle.org.