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Listening has a way of helping

With the recent explosion of wildfire on top of the pandemic, the Rogue Valley Mentoring nonprofit has taken on a new and vital role, with its 40 trained listeners showing up to simply hear — not fix or advise — the stories and struggles of those trying to keep life together for themselves and their families.

The nonprofit, which recently moved from Ashland to Coyote Trails Nature Center in U.S. Cellular Community Park in Medford, has been tending to children and families who suddenly lost everything in the firestorm that ripped through Phoenix, Talent and to the very doorstep of their new home.

Since 2005, Rogue Valley Mentoring has usually partnered with schools and other nonprofit organizations to mentor youth in Title I schools in “strength-based, trauma-informed communication, where they’re facing a lot of adversity, and we focus on drawing out strength and empowerment of youth,” said Executive Director Sarah Kreisman.

“We’re listeners, not teachers, therapists or advisers,” said Kreisman. “We draw answers out of youth themselves, by giving compassionate care that helps rewire trauma, not erase it; and make different relationships to the wounding they’re going through.”

In the week and a half since the devastating Almeda fire, volunteer mentors have been working at shelters, especially at The Expo in Central Point, where, she said, they spot small groups, introduce themselves and find youth, age 10 to 24, quite eager to tell hard tales. They also work with adults of any age and train screened volunteers in the art of listening.

In the age of COVID-19, they’re not able to access students through schools and community partners, such as OnTrack, LifeArt and College Dreams, said Kreisman, so they go where challenged youth are.

On Friday and Saturday they will set up a “circle” in Ashland at Flipside Studio, a large shop area at 255 Helman, No. 5 (entry on Hersey) at 5 p.m., an event for all ages. On Saturday at 1 p.m. it will focus on middle-school kids, while high-schoolers can attend at 2:30 p.m. and college-age students at 4 p.m. It’s all masked and distanced.

Especially hard hit by the wildfires has been the young LatinX population of Phoenix and Talent, said Rogue Valley Mentoring Program Director Laura Pinney.

Typically, she said, they’ve been mentoring families where parents show pictures of “before” and “after” and tell of the horrors of having to flee with a few possessions on that fiery afternoon and evening — and what life has been like since then.

“It’s intense. It’s inspiring,” said Pinney. “They’ve been spending nights sleeping in cars because the motels are full. The youth have been taking care of younger siblings, and they are ready to reach out and talk to us.”

Mentors are trained in “strength-based communication,” Pinney said, which means that they see, reinforce and talk about the heroic actions people do everyday in loving service of younger siblings, the elderly and the community of adolescent peers.

They will have a multi-modal training of new mentors Oct. 9-10 at Coyote Trails Nature Center, she said, where they “learn to be listeners, not fixers.” They also train staff of other organizations in the valley to carry out “community support circles.”

“Our circles bring people together to share their stories,” said Lynn Chertkov, mentor support specialist. “Each person has their own space, their own time to discuss and to hear each other and share their common experience and build connection with each other, which is so important in a time of crisis and chaos, such as we have now.”

Kriesman added that it’s a “nurturing process that calms the nervous system during episodes of heightened stress and emotion, just spending time with mentors trained in trauma-informed care and strength-based communication. We can train any caring, consistent, safe adult in this. You don’t need any special degree or anything.”

“It’s so important for people to tell their stories and have their strengths recognized. They often feel overwhelmed (after trauma), Chertkov said, and the telling of stories may be neglected. But they need to have their strengths recognized.

At The Expo, teens stayed with each other, “and though you may think they are just wasting their time on phones, that is the way they connect with each other,” she noted. “Those bonds are tremendous now. They’ve been staying at home because of COVID, but it comes out now how concerned they are for their parents because they see what they’re going through.”

Many evacuees and seasonal farm workers have lost everything, she added, and the LatinX community “has withstood the greatest loss and they have the least resources of any families in the valley. But we have many mentors fluent in Spanish.”

Half the students in the Phoenix-Talent School District have lost their homes, Chertkov said, and “this is really the underserved community here.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune The Jackson County Expo is serving as an Emergency Shelter for those displaced by recent wildfire.