Building bridges to empowerment

Free new program connects people with life mentors

Ed and Barbara Dempsey of the new mentorship program ADK Bridges to Empowerment were at the Saranac Lake Job Fair and Community Resource Day on May 11. They’ll be at the Lake Placid Community Day on Sunday, recruiting new people to be mentored as well as recruiting new mentors for the free, volunteer program. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

There’s a new mentorship program in the Tri-Lakes pairing up people looking for help with issues like jobs, housing, food, budgeting or parenting with mentors who have life experience, knowledge and connections.

ADK Bridges to Empowerment co-founder Ed Dempsey said the program has been operating for several months now with a handful of families, and they’re looking to expand both their user and mentor base.

The list of what people can use the program for is pretty broad. It’s all up to what they need out of it, he said.

“We don’t go into the relationship with a list of things people should be working on. It’s up to what they want to work on, where they want to be,” Dempsey said. “The key word is empowerment. To empower them to make decisions and move forward in some way.”

Sometimes this means just identifying what those goals are for people. These goals can be short-term or long-term. Some people just want mentorship for a season in their lives. Others look for more consistent support.

“Our program is not intended to ‘do for’ individuals,” Dempsey said. “It’s to help teach them how to do for themselves.” Similar to the adage “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

The service is free. It comes at no cost to its users because it is all volunteer run. Dempsey said the volunteer mentors are “all-in” on doing some hard work for free.

“If you can develop a mentor relationship with an individual or family over a couple of years, the impact can be tremendous,” he said. “We’ve all had mentors in our lives that have impacted us.”

He said the mentors all recognize the influences they had to get them to where they are and they want to give back, to continue the spread of knowledge and empowerment.

Right now, there are eight volunteer mentors who meet with families around once every other week to offer support, friendship and planning advice, while connecting them with people and services who can help in the community.

For around 25 years, Ed and and his wife Barbara volunteered as mentors at a similar program in Clifton Park — the Family Development program through an agency called CAPTAIN Community Human Services. When they moved from Clifton Park to Saranac Lake five years ago, they assumed there would already be a similar program here they could volunteer at. There wasn’t, so they started one up.

Dempsey said there are loads of great organizations around the area, but nothing quite like this mentorship style of service.

Dempsey said CAPTAIN started this program as a way to break the barrier of people needing to keep returning to their agency for aid. He said he and Barbara still talk with many of the people they mentored over the years back in Clifton Park.

“It’s not easy,” Dempsey said, but “it’s a tremendously rewarding experience.”

Many of the people they work with have been through really difficult situations — family issues, abuse, substance use or just plain old back luck. He finds that most people are resilient and just need a little guidance. Either they don’t have a network of family and friends to help, or they aren’t inclined to ask for help.

Dempsey said Saranac Lake is a much smaller community than Clifton Park, and a smaller community sometimes brings a stigma to asking for help. When everyone knows each other, he said people are worried about others knowing their business.

“There’s certainly a pride issue in saying, ‘I just can’t figure this part of my life out,'” he said. “Sometimes people feel more comfortable doing that with a friendly face as opposed to a family member.”

Years ago, he said people relied on their neighbors a bit more for day-to-day assistance. Nowadays, he sees that not happening as much as society has become a bit more isolated. He said the mentorship program fills that neighborly role.

“People are struggling. You read about it every day,” Dempsey said. “Life is hard for a lot of people.”

He said mentors have seen many families struggling to get access to public or private funds for heating fuel over the recent winter. One family lost their health insurance and mentors helped them find new coverage. Dempsey said people are struggling to build social ties that were lost during the coronavirus pandemic and some kids are struggling to connect with the school system.

Ed and Barbara volunteered with St. Agnes Church food pantry in Lake Placid during the coronavirus pandemic and started talking with Father John Yonkovig then. Dempsey said they started holding planning meetings and the eight people who are now the core group of mentors kept coming back week after week, showing their dedication. After a lot of planning, he said the service got off the ground around six months ago. Mentors got virtual training from CAPTAIN organizers on how to do the job.

He said he has spoken with a lengthy list of local organizations about ADK Bridges and has heard excitement from them about being involved.

They run background checks on mentors, but there are not many hard qualifications needed to be one. Mentors need to be able to listen with empathy, to have life experience and the get-up-and-go ability to get things done.

Dempsey said the mentors lean on each other, too, sharing ideas and advice.

The mentors come from a variety of backgrounds themselves. He said there are semi-retired nurses and teachers; people from real estate and social workers; his background is in investment planning.

The mentors are working with four families right now, he said, and they are speaking with several new potential ones. They connect with people through churches, youth centers and other groups, then meet over coffee or a walk and see if they’re a good match.

Dempsey would like to have more families using the mentorship program. With more families, they’ll eventually need more mentors, too. And he envisions the service spreading out in the future to surrounding communities.

Right now, he said the services are based around where mentors live — Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Keene, Wilmington and Lewis. He said a Plattsburgh group is considering developing a similar program there.

Dempsey will be at the Lake Placid Community Day on Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the North Elba Horse Show Grounds with the organization’s white and green booth. He said he’s looking forward to meeting new people there.

To get in contact with ADK Bridges, call 518-369-5873, email info@adkbridges.org or go to their website, which is still under development, at adkbridges.org.


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