Time spent in Sterling’s mentoring program is priceless

Retired teacher and outgoing Mayor Skip Lee has forged a special bond with senior who wants to join Air Force after graduation

Blayn Riley, now a senior at Sterling High School, stands with retired teacher and Sterling Mayor Skip Lee. They have been paired in the Mentor Project since 2013.

STERLING – Janet Freed calls it the “half-hour miracle.”

That’s a reference to the 30 to 40 minutes a week that community members meet with students during lunch or study hall during the school year in the Sterling Public Schools Mentor Project, now in its milestone 10th year.

Students in the program come from all of the elementary schools in the district, Challand Middle School and Sterling High School. Many are referred to the program by teachers.

Blayn Riley, 17, who will graduate this year from Sterling High School and wants to join the Air Force, has been paired with former Sterling Mayor Skip Lee for 10 years. Their mentor/student relationship extends beyond the school year.

They started working together when Riley was a third grader at Washington Elementary School and have continued through Riley’s time at Challand and now the high school.

Studies have shown that one adult mentor can make a huge difference in a kid’s life. It doesn’t cost any money to be a mentor. And not a huge amount of time. But it can help a young person have a successful life.”

—  Skip Lee, retired teacher and longtime member of Sterling Public Schools mentoring program

“Skip has helped me get my schoolwork organized, and he gives me advice on anything when I need it,” Riley said.

Riley said Lee adds a different voice to the parental advice he receives.

“My parents are younger. They haven’t been around as long as Skip. He’s older and wiser,” he said.

Lee said his conversations with Riley are confidential, and he doesn’t pry.

“But I keep him accountable in a gentle way,” he said. “Blayn is more mature than his peers. He does his research before formulating an opinion.”

Lee said he thinks he’s gotten more out of the mentor relationship than Riley has.

“I’ve learned what young people are thinking today,” he said.

Lee got involved in the mentor program because of his background.

He calls himself a “Navy brat and corporate gypsy” because of the moving his family did when he was a youngster.

He attended eight schools in Alabama, California, New Jersey, New York City, North Carolina, Virginia and Arcola before he went to Arcola High School. Because of that moving, he said, he felt lost in a crowd.

Teachers and mentors in the community “turned my life around,” Lee said. “So how could I say no when this [Sterling] mentor program started?”

Lee went from being lost in the crowd to a lengthy career in education and politics. He ended a 12-year run as Sterling mayor this year.

He graduated from Eastern Illinois University and earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois.

He retired as a teacher and the science department chair at Rock Falls High School in 2011. He spent 38 years there. He also taught chemistry and biology at Sauk Valley Community College. He and his wife Susan have three children and six grandchildren.

Lee said his pairing with Riley was perfect.

“I had a sense of deja vu when I read what his grade school teachers said about him,” Lee said. “There were the same positives and challenges as I had at that age.”

There are 45 students currently in the mentor program as it bounces back from a shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Twenty-six students had mentors in 2013, the first year of the program. The number of students climbed to about 100 before the shutdown. Several students have been in the program since its inception.

Freed, the Sterling school district’s assets coordinator and one of the founders of the mentor program, said the mentors aren’t meant to be academic tutors.

“They work on pro-social behaviors with their student,” she said. “But we find students’ academics usually improve when they meet with a mentor.”

Freed pairs mentors with students based on their personalities, then trains the mentors in a 90-minute session.

The training is just part of the meticulously organized program.

Parents must sign a permission slip. Mentors undergo background checks and fingerprinting, and their relationships with students are monitored by school counselors.

Classroom teachers track measurable results such as pro-social behaviors, attendance, office referrals and academics.

Lee encouraged more community members to get involved in the Sterling mentor program.

“Studies have shown that one adult mentor can make a huge difference in a kid’s life,” he said. “It doesn’t cost any money to be a mentor, and not a huge amount of time, but it can help a young person have a successful life.”