On February 8, 2023

Mentor Connector’s John Woodward invests in our youth

By Liz DiMarco Weinmann

Long before recently launched Vermont nonprofits began promising to help disengaged youths “feel valued and experience belonging,” there was Mentor Connector. Working with families, educators, caretakers, business leaders, and other nonprofits, Mentor Connector offers a broad variety of programs led by trusted experts who have been helping youths feel valued, nurtured and welcome for nearly two decades. 

The following is a glimpse of what the organization does: Mentor Connector’s one-on-one mentoring helps support youth in life skills, education, and workforce development. Its group mentoring program provides youths the opportunity to learn a new skill, serve in the community, or get to know other youths and mentors in a safe environment. The organization’s family mentoring program matches a community mentor with a family and each youth within the family, and the transitional living program helps endangered youths, ages 16-21, transition to self-sufficiency. 

Frightening news reports about the challenges of America’s youth bring to mind President John F. Kennedy’s declaration, “Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.” Last December, The Mentor Connector gained a new executive director named John Woodward, a dynamic career-long educator and compassionate youth advocate, for whom Kennedy’s quote could become a personal mantra.

Becoming the leader of Mentor Connector represents a return to Vermont for Woodward, his wife Caroline, and their two daughters. A few years ago he served as director and community program manager for the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, the youth development and leadership nonprofit in Richmond, a post that Woodward indicates he enjoyed immensely.

While many dedicated educators are driven to make a difference in the lives of young people, Woodward speaks unabashedly about his “curiosity and joy” toward his work.

In a recent interview over Zoom, Woodward’s curiosity and joy were front and center. He provided hopeful perspectives about the challenges today’s youth face; the essential skill all good educators, mentors, and parents should cultivate in nurturing our youth; and the respect and gratitude he has for leaders who have mentored him throughout his career. Following are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity and space.

“If all generations would engage with youth in a positive way,” Woodward began, “then they could change their narrative about these young people, simply by investing their time in them. In turn, the youths would give back to their community, which would benefit them and future generations,” he added.

Where others may see only problems, Woodward sees opportunities to look for the inherent good in young people, to help them develop skills they can be proud of so that, eventually, they can secure meaningful work. He greatly admires historian Louis (Studs) Terkel, whose landmark book, “Working,” still resonates with many educators, almost five decades after its publication.

“Everyone needs something they can point to, to note something they accomplished,” Woodward affirms, reflecting Terkel’s often-quoted perspective that all work is valuable, and all workers should be respected.

Woodward is a staunch believer that drawing out, and honoring, an individual’s unique strengths and potential to contribute to society, begins when they are children. He credits his time spent abroad, engaging with other cultures, in helping him develop his acute sense of empathy and active listening, with people of all ages and backgrounds.

“I immerse myself to learn about a new person or a new place,” said Woodward. “I believe it’s a sign of respect, to be curious and interested in learning about them. So, I ask questions first, and I listen intently to the replies,” he explained. That’s my definition of ‘leaning in’.”

“But I also learned how important it is to ‘lean out,’” Woodward added, to reflect on what I’m hearing, before going ahead to analyze and weigh in with my own perspectives.

“It’s in the ‘leaning out’ that we can clarify and reexamine our own values,” Woodward advises. “Then we can become more creative about solutions to what might have seemed problems … My goal is to meet folks where they are,” he said. “That’s what we need to do as teachers and parents, try to find the connection and where we overlap.”

Woodward has tremendous fondness for the Vermont nonprofit leaders he met through his work at VYCC, whom he continues to seek out as advisers for his own development as a leader. “I’ve had success in fundraising, creating efficiencies in operations, and fostering an engaged organizational culture,” Woodward noted, “but this is my first executive director job.” 

To that point, Woodward indicates he is looking forward to connecting with other Killington-Rutland area nonprofit leaders, including those who also are first-time executive directors. 

He has already begun to reach out to them, acknowledging how essential collaboration is in such a small state as Vermont.

 “Mentor Connector will be strongest when we ourselves are connectors,” acknowledges Woodward, “via the partnerships we create with other organizations in our community – whether they are youth-driven or serve other important causes. It’s through those collaborations that I hope Mentor Connector will become an indispensable resource in the community.

“The services that Mentor Connector provides are essential for helping all of our young people, despite their challenges, develop their own social capital,” said Woodward. “If we focus on inspiring our youths, facilitating their development, then they will thrive.” 

John Woodward’s profound respect for young people, and his empathy for diverse — and often disparate – points of view should serve him well in his leadership of Mentor Connector. He is the embodiment of an educator who is deeply committed to helping young people thrive and convincing them that they truly are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.

For more information, including how to become a mentor, visit: mentorconnector.com. 

Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is principal and owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann Consulting, L3C, based in Rutland, serving charitable and educational institutions: lizdimarcoweinmann.com.

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