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How rural students are benefiting from a grass-roots mentorship program you’ve probably never heard of

The STRIVE program — which stands for Students Taking a Renewed Interest in the Value of Education — originated in White Bear Lake in 1987.

Rockford STRIVE alumna Nina Robin has stayed in touch with her mentors, Perry Buffie, left, and Steve Huston.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

As seniors at Rockford High School prepare for commencement, a more exclusive graduation banquet took place Monday evening honoring 14 Rockford students who once thought a diploma might be out of reach.

Reflecting on their personal growth through the STRIVE program, many gave credit to a key element that had been missing from their lives before: someone who believed in their potential and could offer guidance toward success.

It sounds basic, but it’s a catalyst that all too often escapes those who are silently struggling in school. In many cases, a lack of ability isn’t the thing that’s holding them back. As these students shared, it’s a lack of self-confidence, a poor grasp of time management, an unstable home situation or some other contributing factor.  

For STRIVE alumna Nina Robin, a 2014 Rockford High graduate, it was a combination of obstacles: peers who told her she should kill herself because of the unconventional way she dressed and colored her hair, teachers who told her she’d never amount to anything, and feelings of confusion and anger when her parents lost their jobs and then their house.

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They ended up moving before Robin’s sophomore year. Starting anew at Rockford High School — where class sizes were much smaller, with closer to 100 kids per grade level — she says her Ds and Fs started turning into Cs when the bullying stopped and her teachers started to pay more attention to her.

But it wasn’t until she got a letter inviting her to participate in the STRIVE program her senior year that things really started to turn around. Lured in by the promise of free food and being able to miss an hour of class, she decided to check out the newly launched mentorship program.

“I wasn’t expecting that much out of the first meeting,” she said, noting she remembers not wanting that first session to end. “Whenever there was a STRIVE meeting, it ended up being the best part of my day … because there were people in my life who I could tell they actually cared about my personal success, my academic life. That meant a lot to me.”

Now a college student with a strong GPA, international travel experience and a business plan already in the works, Robin can look back on her time spent in the STRIVE program and recognize the invaluable life skills she gained. And the number of students who can relate to her experience is growing as STRIVE continues to spread locally, nationally and internationally.

Minnesota roots

The STRIVE program — which stands for Students Taking a Renewed Interest in the Value of Education — originated in White Bear Lake in 1987 under the direction of a local businessman, Don Mooney. He noticed there were some kids entering their senior year who wanted to do better, he says, but they seemed to need an extra push. So he established a scholarship, along with a mentorship opportunity, that might offer the added incentive they needed to cross the finish line.

The White Bear Lake School District soon embraced the program, along with the local Rotary Club, enhancing the scholarship opportunities and collaborating with community mentors to ensure students in need of additional guidance got connected to the program.

In 1993, the STRIVE program was awarded the McKnight Humanitarian Award and had already begun taking hold in nearby districts, largely through their corresponding Rotary Clubs. Today, Mooney estimates there are about 2,500 Rotary-based STRIVE programs that have expanded to clubs to places as far away as Australia. Mooney says he’s even hopped in private airplanes in Lake Elmo to present the program to interested clubs in the region.

“It’s really a simple program,” he said. “There just seems to be a niche there, and it’s still there.”

While there’s no official STRIVE headquarters or landing page for the program online, the program is discreetly providing a critical service that’s delivered piecemeal at many schools, given the widespread lack of resources for counselors and other student support professionals.

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Given the grass-roots nature of the program, it’s spread by word-of-mouth from one community to the next.

About 10 years ago, it reached the Rotary Club in Fridley. There, Cathey Smith has been involved from the get-go.

“I have seen some incredible turnarounds — kids with a 2.0 that ended up graduating with a 3.9 and are excited about going on to college,” she said. As is the case with many STRIVE programs, once they become more established in a community, the Fridley mentors award a matching one-year scholarship with a local community college, along with a number of smaller grants, to those who have shown growth during their senior year.

A successful spinoff

In Rockford, the scholarship pool — supported by the local lions club, STRIVE mentors, the local chamber of commerce, the school district’s booster club and a memorial fund in honor of a founding mentor — has increased to six, totaling $3,500.

Celebrating its fourth cohort of graduates Monday evening, the Rockford STRIVE program has the distinction of being perhaps the first offshoot that’s operating outside the bounds of a particular club.

Two Maple Grove rotarians introduced the concept to two Rockford community members who decided to take the concept and run with it, with a bit of guidance that initial year.

“By the second year, we were running it all by ourselves. We weren’t confined by the past, so we could innovate,” Perry Buffie, one of the founders, said.

“There are a lot of competing programs and voices and needs in a city. Out here, there are needs, but for us to come in and say, ‘We’re going to do this thing,’ it’s easy to get it going.”

The Rockford STRIVE program has served anywhere from 10 to 15 students each year, pairing them with a community mentor, many of whom have overcome adversities in their own lives. Students in the bottom half of their class are invited to participate their junior year, and they sign a social contract declaring their commitment to  three things: attending class, improving their GPA and graduating.

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From there, the program structure is simple. The group meets for about an hour every other week during school hours to discuss a wide range of topics, from goal setting and time management to attitude and strengths and careers.

“We’re encouraging them to be introspective, maybe even vulnerable,” Buffie said. “The type of kid that is best served by this is one who has tons of unrealized potential and the only thing that’s been holding them back is themself.”

That’s one of the key take-aways Robin, the STRIVE alumna who spoke at the banquet Monday evening, shared with her peers after she had opened up and shared the details of her backstory.

“This may end up being a harsh reality check for some of you, but if you’re serious about meeting your dreams and goals … there are three words you’re going to have to get very familiar with by the end of the summer: sacrifice, discipline and passion,” she said, noting they’ll also need to surround themselves with others who are motivated.

“Realize you are greater than your circumstances, no matter what they are at this point in time.”