For almost 85 years, the YMCA in Austin has been one of the most respected venues for sports and extracurricular activities for West Side youth.

The Austin YMCA, located at 501 N. Central Ave., recently launched a program they hope will reach even more community children. Y Pals, the first of its kind at the Austin YMCA, is a new mentoring program that allows area volunteers the opportunity to serve as a positive influence to children living in high-risk environments.

Both the Austin YMCA and the YMCA of North Lawndale, to finance the program, share a $3 million grant, provided by the U.S. Department of Education earlier in the year. However, the latter has been conducting a mentoring program voluntarily for seven years.

Children chosen for Y Pals are all fourth- through eighth-graders attending Austin area schools such as Duke Ellington, Key School and Fredrick Douglass. At least two children are chosen from each school, and they aim for an equal number of girls and boys. The mentors are also gender-matched, boys with men, girls with women.

“The principal of the schools writes recommendations for the students, and we choose as many as we can, based on our number of mentors,” said Catherine Mayberry, coordinator of the program. “Right now we serve about 40 children. Each receive one-on-one mentoring, but we expect that as our number of volunteers grows, our number of served children will also grow.”

Among the responsibilities of the prospective Y Pals are: They must commit at least one hour per week to the child. They must complete mentor training and a thorough background check, show a genuine interest in developing the potential of a youth, accept the child as an individual and show patience in dealing with the youth’s limitations and personal issues.

Y-Pals will meet weekly with the child. Activities may include homework, field trips planned by the YMCA or just talking about their lives. Statistics have proven for years that children involved in mentoring programs usually excel later in their academic endeavors.

“We also require that each volunteer successfully complete the 4-hour child abuse prevention training to assure they avoid any problems during their stint,” said James Williams, mentor coordinator. “We want the child to feel safe and the parent to feel in control of the scheduling so that they can take part in the process along with the child.”

To further the emphasis on safety, mentors can only meet with their mentored child at previously arranged dates and times at the center.

“We know that most volunteer mentors have innocent motives,” said Mayberry. “But our primary responsibility lies with the children and their parents and ensuring they have a rewarding experience with their adult companion.”

“Essentially, through the Y-Pals we have three primary objectives,” said Williams. “We want to enhance the academic achievement of the community youth, we want to develop them spiritually and emotionally, and we want to help them build relationships that make them feel like they are important and valued.”

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer with the Y-Pals, contact Catherine Mayberry and James Williams at 773/287-9120 ext. 2781.