EVANSTON — Something struck Mountain View Elementary second-grade teacher Tami Stoddard when she received an email in April 2018 about the NextGen Mentoring Mentor Match program.
“It just kind of hit me,” she said, “[that] this would be something great in my life, so I want to do this.”
She spoke with NextGen Mentoring Program Coordinator Bethany Shidler, who interviewed her extensively and guided Stoddard through the process of becoming a mentor. After passing a background check and reviewing Stoddard’s interests, Shidler matched Stoddard with Mountain View High School student Jaylynn Watson, who is now 16 years old.
Watson said she moved from Utah about a year and a half ago to live with her father. She’d been bullied in Utah, where she was living with her mom, and she hoped Mountain View would offer a safer environment.
Just a few months after moving to Mountain View, Watson found in Stoddard more than she expected.
“I really feel like Tami is my best friend and I can tell her anything,” Watson said of her mentor. “She’s given me more confidence in myself, and she’s like a second family.”
A reserved Watson said Stoddard’s strong support and friendship have made a world of difference to her, but it’s Stoddard who raves about how Watson and the program have changed her life in a positive way.
“She’s inspired me. She really has,” Stoddard said. “Knowing some of the challenges she’s had to face has made me want to be a stronger person, a better person, because I see that in her and it motivates me to be that way. She’s changed me, as well. I have a great love for her — so much love. I have developed this love for her in a way that I consider her family. My husband, my children, consider her family. It’s just been a really, really neat experience.”
Stoddard said that, at first, Watson came across as very quiet, introverted, unsure. She said that was probably because the two didn’t even know each other. But soon after, through texts, short conversations and time spent together, Stoddard said those walls came down.
“I’ve basically seen her bloom,” Stoddard said. “Like a butterfly. She’s this beautiful person who’s come out of her shell.”
Stoddard said a major breakthrough came after she went to see Watson throw discus and shotput at an indoor track meet.
“We went out to dinner after, and on the way home, we had many different conversations — some lighthearted and others very serious,” Stoddard said. “Before I dropped her off, she said, ‘Tami, I feel like we can talk about anything.’”
The program does its best to make good matches. One common interest that Stoddard and Watson share is a love for animals. That made their first get-together easy. They went to the Living Planet Aquarium in Salt Lake City.
They’ve also been to Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. That trip included some of the goals set forth by the mentoring program. The two met with zoo employees to learn the requirements and skills needed to work there. Stoddard said they were disappointed to learn that to actually work with the animals, a long-term commitment is required due to the extensive training the zoo provides. She said that Watson later got to work with a veterinarian in Ft. Bridger, and she enjoyed that.
The two have been to movies, worked on Stoddard’s ranch, cooked meals together and Stoddard has supported Watson during band performances — Watson plays the clarinet.
“‘Mama Mia 2’ came out and we were both super excited, so we went to that together,” Stoddard said. “Another life goal we worked on was cooking. She’s really into Harry Potter. She was able to get this Harry Potter cookbook. She picked a recipe and she cooked it at my house. ... [We priced] different things and actually went over a budget for shopping and where we could get the best deals and went shopping then went home and cooked it. It was just a great, great night.”
Watson’s had a busy week as she gets ready for prom on Saturday and, of course, Stoddard is there to help.
“I found out that she hadn’t bought a dress yet,” Stoddard said, “and I asked if she wanted me to buy her a dress and she said yes. So my daughter and I took her prom dress shopping and it was so much fun.”
Stoddard said they also made appointments for Watson to get a makeover before the big dance. She said she’s proud of Watson and has been excited to witness her personal growth.
“I don’t feel like I can take credit,” Stoddard said, “because she’s made choices on her own. She works hard. She came from a place where I think she just wanted to better her situation, her life, and it really shows by the things she’s done for herself, and one of those things was joining this mentoring program.”
Watson agrees, especially about the mentoring program.
“It’s really good,” she said. “I feel like more people, more youth should be a part of it because it’s really helped me be more confident and have another friend and person outside of family and school.”