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Big Idea stills seeks volunteers

The government shutdown is temporarily slowing the recruitment of mentors for the children of the Big Idea, a push to graduate 100 percent of Medford's sixth-graders.

But the shutdown isn't stopping community leaders from calling out for more volunteer mentors to work with the more than 1,000 members of the 2020 graduating class.

"Right now we can't do background checks on mentors, because we can't do fingerprint checks, because of the shutdown," said Dee Anne Everson, executive director of the United Way of Jackson County and the originator of the idea for the Big Idea.

Everson refuses to let a temporary problem slow the momentum of collecting volunteers for the effort.

"Everyone still needs to step up and put their best foot forward to get these kids to high school completion," Everson said.

The 1,053 students, gathered last spring from fifth-grade classrooms at 17 separate elementary schools — 16 from the Medford School District and one in Cave Junction — are the children of the Big Idea. The students are receiving help with their basic needs and connections with programs that can provide for medical and dental needs, supply them clothing or YMCA memberships or one-on-one mentoring. The goal of the movement is a 100 percent high school graduation rate for the class of 2020.

Scott Perry, superintendent of Southern Oregon Education Services District, stepped up to mentor an at-risk student from Jackson Elementary School last spring. Perry called the school, said he could play guitar, and asked if there was a fifth-grader who would like to learn.

"I'm a big believer in putting your time investment where your talk is," Perry said.

For a half-hour a week, Perry teaches the boy guitar chords, talks about homework, goals in life and college aspirations, he said.

"I want him to develop a sense that he can do it," Perry said.

Medford schools have a 64 percent high school graduation rate. That means, Everson said, the community is failing 1 in 3 children. Roadblocks to success can arise from all sorts of issues. But Everson is hoping the community-based movement will change that number.

"There is something every member of this community can do to participate in this movement," she said.

Perry said he carries around a cache of specialty chocolates in a wooden briefcase, intended to entice other community leaders to spend an hour or so a week sharing their time, skills and attention with a kid who needs them.

"If all the leaders in this community would mentor one student, that would make a huge change," Perry said.

Talia Matthias, recently hired as the educational impact director for United Way, serves as point person between the schools and the agencies that will help the students. From helping a student get glasses to getting others enrolled in health care to finding tutors such as Perry, Matthias is all about the connections.

"We are getting a ton of support from the school districts, the community and the agencies," Matthias said. "And the parents I've talked to are really excited."

Each child enrolled in the program wrote a letter to United Way detailing what it would take to graduate. One needed a science book. Others wanted iPads. Some hoped their parents could get a job or help with their bills. One girl simply wanted to learn social skills so she could make friends.

Everson stressed the Big Idea is not a new program, but rather an amalgam of a lot of existing efforts. It's a movement designed to engage the students and the community at large by linking and leveraging programs that already exist, she said.

"One hour a week with a healthy adult can change a kid's life forever," Everson said.

For more information, contact Matthias at United Way at 541-773-5339 or email office@UnitedWayofJacksonCounty.org.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.