Project GROW pairs teens in foster care with student mentors


Girls need role models, especially in high school. And those that have been tossed around the foster care system might need them even more.

This is the philosophy behind Project GROW (Girls Realizing Opportunities in the World), which began in 2011, sprouting from collaboration between the University’s Institute for Women’s Leadership and the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology.

IWL student mentors meet with adolescent girls every other week from October to May for counseling sessions, said Jeremy LaMaster, program assistant for the IWL sector.

But the recent initiative is not only meant to deal with psychological troubles. Lisa Hetfield, development director at IWL, said the project is designed particularly for young women to help solve their distinct problems and realize their goals in life.

“Developing young women’s leadership is what our mission is,” she said. “As young women go through adolescence, they think about transitioning into college — and who better to learn from than young women who are already in college?”

Marisa Irabli, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said she changed her major from biology to psychology after taking part in the program.

Irabli, now co-runner of the program, plans on going through graduate school for developmental psychology.

She was surprised to see a fundamental change take place within her mentee and herself.

“She was quiet and soft-spoken, but over the years, I saw her make friends with the other mentees,” she said. “I saw her become better spoken. Seeing her change really helped me change myself.”

Danielle Zurawiecki, a University graduate student, said the clients were eager to attend meetings.

“It ran for 10 months and they came every week, so that in and of itself is pretty remarkable,” said Zurawiecki, co-facilitator of the program. “They wanted to be there, they wanted to come, and they’re interested in doing it again if they’re able to.”

Zurawiecki said she believes adolescents in foster care are being underserved and should have more access to therapeutic outlets.

“As they get older, part of what they try to do is help transition the adolescent to help prepare them for when they’re going to be adults,” she said. “A lot of the services don’t focus on mental health. … They focus on teaching you how to apply for a job.”

Zurawiecki said the GSAPP sector focused on the psychological aspect of the project by advising the undergraduates in their therapy tactics.

“Adolescents alone have trouble trusting adults, especially girls in the foster cares system who have experienced trauma,” she said. “We helped the mentors understand what the girls were going through and help build bonds that form a relationship with the adolescents.”

LaMaster said he is impressed with what has been done with the program so far, considering it just began last year.

“It’s really exciting to be starting from a point where there has already been so much done,” he said. “There are so many resources and information. We can keep building upon what is already a very solid foundation.”

A previous leadership program focusing on mentor-mentee relationships that ran from 2006 to 2009 influenced the start of Project GROW, Hetfield said.

“We learned from that program that mentoring was a very strong component, and we wanted to build on our knowledge from what we learned,” she said.

An anonymous donor largely funds the project, Hetfield said.

“The donor was interested in the institution collaborating with the graduate school,” she said. “She was kind of the inspiration for this.”

The estimated cost for the program will be around $4,100 this year. The expenses cover trips, dinner meetings and holiday gifts, LaMaster said.

All mentors take a three-credit “Mentoring, Leadership and Young Women’s Lives” course offered by IWL to prepare them for the reality of counseling, LaMaster said.

“It shows them how to develop the relationship and how it cultivates,” he said. “It makes it more egalitarian, so the mentor and the mentee receive benefits from their experience with each other.”

Zurawiecki said the undergraduate students were very motivated to help their mentees deal with their trauma.

“They really wanted to make a difference in somebody else’s life,” she said. “I think that’s what really prompted them to be a part of it.”

Irabli said the most challenging part of the program was the lack of organization.

“A lot of things went off without a hitch, but some things were really difficult — like doing the outside events,” she said. “I think this upcoming year it’ll be better organized because we already did it once, and we’ll be able to fix what we want to fix.”

LaMaster said the programming was not evaluated well enough in 2011, but he hopes the institute will soon build its own unique model of a mentor-mentee relationship through programming.

“That’s something we’re looking to build years down the line,” he said. “It’ll be a lot easier to apply this program to other groups and similar programs that might need this type of relationship.”

Hetfield said the mentors learned how difficult it is to end the relationships as the year comes to a close.

“That was really hard for our Rutgers students, who wanted to keep the relationship going,” she said. “They learned how to close their relationships powerfully and positively, even though they wanted to continue.”

Irabli said she didn’t expect the ups and downs of the job to hit her so hard.

“I expect to do it, to make some bonds and some friendships throughout the year,” she said. “But it took an emotional toll on me — for the better. I left there a better person, and I really appreciate all the relationships I made with the mentees and the mentors. I really learned a lot.”


By Lisa Berkman

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