By Stephen B. Wilson, YWCA Community Relations Committee Member

Part I

Mindy Gardner, a bright, smiling, energetic young woman, sits in her small second-floor office at the Cortland YWCA as she describes her position as Director of Mentoring Programs for two unique programs for children.  Ms. Gardner’s Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with an emphasis in Child Development made her the prime candidate for the position of nursery school teacher, which she assumed nine years ago.  In recent years, however, she has taken the reigns of two signature YW programs for children:  Bridges for Kids and GEMS (Girls Empowered, Motivated, and Successful).

Bridges for Kids is a one-on-one mentoring program for boys and girls ages five to twelve.  Throughout its 39-year history it has served the developmental needs of disadvantaged children from the city and county of Cortland.  As Mindy describes it: “These are kids who may come from low-income families or from stressed homes or who may have some sort of barrier that hinders their development.  We have some kids with learning disabilities or behavioral issues who need that extra one-on-one attention.  Each problem is unique.”  There have been some children in the program who, because of their neighborhoods’ unsafe conditions, may not have been allowed out of their homes. Thanks to the thoughtful supervision of their dedicated mentors, however, they’ve had the life-altering opportunities to go each week to museums, sports events, shows, concerts, and civic presentations.

From Mindy’s perspective, one of the rewarding aspects of the Bridges program is the high degree of commitment and dedication of the adult volunteers who serve as mentors to these children.  She says, “Half of the mentors are college students, which is great because of their youth and energy; however, they inevitably leave.  The other half are community members, which is wonderful because they stick around and know the area.”  When I asked what the saddest part of the job is, she answered that because of the lack of sufficient numbers of available mentors there is a waiting list of boys and girls hoping to join the program.

When I asked how the mentor/child connection was determined, Mindy said that each mentor was “matched” to a specific child according to that child’s needs and personality.  “I do an interview process with the mentor and mentee, and I try to match them up with the appropriate personality blend.”  She also indicated that when the child “ages out” of the Bridges program, the child and mentor may often continue their relationship for several years on an informal basis.

As one might expect, parents and guardians are “thrilled” with the changes they see in their children’s growth after a brief time in the Bridges program.  As Ms. Gardner says, “Most parents or guardians are excited and willing to work with the mentors.  They really want what’s best for their child, including things that may be temporarily beyond their reach.  Bridges becomes one big family of the parents, the kids, and even the children on the waiting list.  They gather together each month here at the YW for things like pizza parties, family swimming, and movie nights; we do it all for them.”

When I asked if Bridges for Kids was the equivalent of Big Brothers and Sisters, Mindy confirmed that larger cities like Syracuse, Ithaca and Binghamton have those programs, but Cortland is too small to qualify for them.  Bridges is the only program here that provides the individual mentoring that is so critical for the nurturing of disadvantaged children.  Ms. Gardner stressed that the YW has an urgent need for new volunteers to give of their time for these deserving children.  The only “qualifications” needed for mentoring are that each person must be at least 18 years old and have a desire to help.

Help is also rendered to the program by each person who becomes a member of the YWCA Cortland.  The fee for membership is a large part of the “baseline” for the operating budget for the YW and is shared by all of the programs and services offered by the organization.

To volunteer for a life-changing experience as a mentor or assistant with Bridges For Kids, contact Mindy Gardner at or call the YWCA office at 607-753-9651.