Four fresh-faced St. Mary's School teen mentors slip into seats in the VIBES Public Charter School cafeteria and immediately engage their pint-sized tablemates in chirpy conversation.

Four fresh-faced St. Mary's School teen mentors slip into seats in the VIBES Public Charter School cafeteria and immediately engage their pint-sized tablemates in chirpy conversation.

How is your day going? Do you like your burger? Does that chocolate milk taste good? The interaction may appear superficial. But the long-term benefits of mentoring can be deeply impactive — to those seated on both sides of the table, said Anne Adderson, mentor coordinator at St. Mary's School.

A recent Princeton study shows students who are mentored are 46 percent less likely to do drugs, 33 percent less likely to use alcohol, and more than 50 percent more likely to graduate from school, Adderson said.

"Studies show that for kids, having just one person committed to them means they are more likely to be successful in all areas of their life," Adderson said.

The 62 St. Mary's students who signed up to serve as role models to VIBE's students are helping at-risk kids develop life skills, good time management, strong communication, positive peer relationships, literacy skills and healthy habits, she said.

"Our kids had to give a minimum 12-week commitment of one hour a week," said Adderson. "But it has turned into much, much more. Many are coming two to three times a week. Some are asking what they can do in the summer with the kids."

VIBES is an acronym for Vitality in Becoming Educated Socially, a long-standing mission of Kids Unlimited, which began with a $500 grant 15 years ago, said Tom Cole, executive director.

Cole has known Adderson and VIBES principal and veteran educator Stephanie Johnson since he started Kids Unlimited at Washington Elementary School — a school renowned for its high-poverty rate and high test scores, Cole said.

VIBES' students are showing steady gains in test scores, said Cole.

"We've just received our first qualitative assessment. We had a 20 percent growth in reading scores. That's big," he said.

But in order to learn, "these kids have to feel loved and like they're valued," Cole said.

Cole had a heart-to-heart with the St. Mary's students before the mentoring program started. If they wanted to participate, Cole expected them to show up and participate each and every week for the three-month assignment, he said.

"We've got some kids here who really need help. And I shared with (the St. Mary's students) the realities. These kids have been through a lot. They've had enough betrayal," Cole said. "I also told them I could not have made this level of commitment when I was their age. So if they wanted out of the program, to speak up, and that there would be no judgments."

Cole's talk simply provided more inspiration for St. Mary's junior Maddy Schwartz, 17.

Schwartz has always gravitated toward mentoring younger kids. In her neighborhood, Schwartz was the older kid who offered to take care of the younger ones, she said.

"It's nice to watch a kid grow up and be changed and really influenced by older kids," Schwartz said.

Freshman Ben McAnally, 14, said a trip to Africa opened his eyes to a need much closer to home.

"I was in Uganda helping the underprivileged," McAnally said. "Then I realized there was just as much need here. It was eye-opening."

McAnally's mentee is first-grader Miguel Morales. Earlier this week they were hanging out in the culinary science classroom.

"I helped him with some homework," McAnally said.

Others worked on spelling by playing hangman and 20 questions, he said.

Two more St. Mary's mentors, Madeline Gregg, 17, and Kylie Winger, 16, are surprised at how much fun they're having, and also how much they are appreciated by their mentees.

"Every time I come here, kids run up and give me a hug," Gregg said.

The primary goal of the mentor program is to "be an additional support" system, Adderson said. St. Mary's students can provide help with English, math and reading, she said.

"But some don't need academic help. They just need that other person," Adderson said.

The students who really commit to the mentoring will receive just as much growth in return, Cole said. Whether they go into teaching or medicine or accounting, learning empathic leadership skills is vital to becoming a productive and compassionate member of society, he said.

"It's a really powerful position, to be a mentor," he said. "This experience is going to offer them something a formal education can't provide."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail