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Companions for children

Minot’s Companions for Children program has grown under the leadership of executive director Heather Cymbaluk.

“In the last few years we have grown significantly as a program,” said Cymbaluk. “We’re at just about 60 matches right now. That’s 60 children who are really getting the impact of an additional role model in their life. When I first started we were more geared toward single (parent) households, which we still are, but we’ve grown (to include more nontraditional households). We’ve kind of opened our doors a little bit more.”

Companions for Children serves children between the ages of 6 to 18 who live in Minot or within a 15-mile radius of Minot.

Cymbaluk said the program typically serves kids from single-parent households as well as others who might be in need of an extra adult in their lives, such as children living with grandparents or some other extended family member or who are in foster care.

“If they have a two-parent household, we do ask for a referral,” said Cymbaluk.

Referrals might come from a guidance counselor or teacher or a police officer who has noticed that a child is struggling.

The program is free.

Prospective adult mentors are screened thoroughly. The program does reference checks and also conducts a local and national criminal background check on each volunteer mentor and also ensures they are not listed on a child abuse registry. Cymbaluk said the program also checks the driving records of mentors.

“We take the safety of our children very seriously,” said Cymbaluk.

Mentors work with the organization on a volunteer basis and must agree to dedicate at least four hours a month for up to a year to spending time with the children they are matched with.

One of the first questions program mentors are asked is why they want to dedicate their time to the organization.

“They really just want to make a difference in the community,” said Cymbaluk.

Cymbaluk said the program makes an effort to match mentors with children who share similar interests or personalities.

A shared interest such as crafting or sports can serve as a launching point for beginning a friendship between mentor and mentee.

“We suggest free to low-cost activities because we don’t want to put a significant financial impact on our mentors,” said Cymbaluk.

Mentors and mentees might go to the park or seek out volunteer activities they can do together.

“Some of our mentors will go and watch their mentees play sports,” said Cymbaluk.

Companions for Children also interviews children and their parents or guardians before matching a child with a mentor.

Cymbaluk said there has also been a lot of positive feedback from the young people who are benefiting from the program.

“It’s great,” said Cymbaluk. “We hear such amazing stories from the kids and from their parents or guardians. We hear, ‘I wish he was my actual big brother,’ or ‘I can’t wait to hang out with him again,’ or ‘my friends think he’s really cool.’ They really enjoy (spending time with) that person that’s there for them.”

Cymbaluk said research shows long term benefits for kids who have been paired with a mentor.

“They have more confidence in their school work,” she said. “They’re more likely to join in extracurricular activities. They’re more likely to be future leaders in their communities. There are so many benefits.”

Cymbaluk said she has not yet mentored a child herself, but she would like to do so one day. She benefited herself from a mentor at her first job at Marry Me Bridal in Minot, where she worked for seven years.

Cymbaluk said her boss gave her the flexibility to pursue college course work while she was working at the bridal shop. She also learned the ins and outs of business and marketing and had the opportunity to work with people who were planning the happiest event of their lives.

Cymbaluk, a Minot native and a graduate of Bishop Ryan Catholic School, earned an undergraduate degree in marketing and management information systems from Minot State University and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Mary in Bismarck.

She has been the executive director at Companions for Children since the summer of 2013.

“It kind of found me,” said Cymbaluk, who had not previously worked for the organization. “I was looking for something different, something I could enjoy … it was kind of just a good fit.”

It’s also a place where Cymbaluk plans to remain for the forseeable future.

“I really do enjoy this community,” said Cymbaluk, and she also likes having the opportunity to be involved in her hometown and to continue to make a difference for the children of Minot.

(Prairie Profile is a weekly feature profiling interesting people in our region. We welcome suggestions from our readers. Call Editor Mike Sasser at 857-1959 or Regional Editor Eloise Ogden at 857-1944. Either can be reached at 1-800-735-3229. You also can send e-mail suggestions to msasser@minotdailynews.com.