Burlington graduate launches app to provide rural youth mentorship, support
September 1, 2022
GREYBULL — A Burlington High School graduate has created an app that aims to provide rural youth the mentorship they need to thrive.
The app, called Positivity Outward, empowers middle school, high school and college students to choose from 45 different mentors from 14 different states and three countries to help them in tasks such as filling out job applications and applying to college, exploring career directions, developing life skills and even navigating mental health challenges.
"We have more mentors signing up every week," founder Zariah Tolman said. "What's very unique about our program is that students choose their own mentors and are encouraged to have relationships with multiple mentors, so they have the support they need for all of their goals."
Tolman, a Montana State University neuroscience and business graduate and current doctorate student at the University of California Riverside, is the founder and executive director of the non-profit behind the app.
She said the idea for it comes from her own life experience growing up in the 50-person town of Otto.
The first time she felt anxious and depressed was in eighth grade, she said, but she didn't know how to reach out, feeling isolated in her rural community and school. Tolman said that struggle developed into a severe mental illness in college.
"That's why we went the route of peer mentorship. I didn't always feel like I had a lot of friends in high school or had a lot of places where I could ask questions and open up. That persisted in college. I was really resistant to getting help," Tolman said. "It took a close relationship with multiple people over a long period of time, who paid attention, knew I wasn't OK and made sure I was getting the guidance I needed."
Mentorship made the difference in her life, Tolman said.
With the guidance of multiple peers who mentored her, she was able to get the help she needed to overcome her own challenges.
"I don't ever have to put on a mask or a face," Tolman said. "I get to be who I am with them. They help me grow and achieve the goals that are important to me."
She hopes with Positivity Outward, students who feel isolated can find mentorship far sooner than she did.
The app is just coming out of the pilot stages right now, but among the limited students that have used Positivity Outward, there are already stories of success, Tolman said.
Tolman shared the story of a student she mentored herself who sought her help in managing depression.
"He said that he finally had the motivation to get through school and that he felt balanced," Tolman said. "He was able to talk with me about information that was difficult to find with others."
Another student, Tolman said, was able to connect with multiple mentors in helping find direction after high school.
"She didn't know who she was or what her purpose was," Tolman said. "She was able to build relationships with five different mentors who took their time exploring before finding what they wanted to do, and it provided a lot of clarity for her."
Each mentor is listed on the website alongside the topics they feel they are most able to address, allowing students to choose the mentor who can most directly give them guidance in the areas they need assistance in, Tolman said. There are also mentors available for several religious beliefs. Mentors are typically college-aged students and professionals at the beginning of their careers, Tolman said, and range across several different locations and career paths.
All mentors complete an application, interview, criminal and sex offender background check, receive QPR (question, persuade and refer) training for suicide prevention and take part in a three-hour training covering 11 different modules.
The mentors are not mental health professionals, Tolman said, but are able to connect mentees with professional help if needed while sharing their own perspective.
"They're only speaking of their own experience. They're not giving any medical advice," Tolman said. "They're sharing what has worked for them. We want to provide an open space for all kinds of conversations."
The app is designed to give students control in how they use it.
"Each mentor makes their own schedule and mentees can access them as they need to within that schedule," Tolman said. "They can use it a little bit or they can use it a lot. It's meant to meet their needs."
The app is funded through multiple grants; therefore, there is no charge for students to sign up and connect with the mentors.
Positivity Outward is currently only available through the website, positivityoutward.org, but Tolman said the organization is in the process of creating a mobile version that will be available through the Apple app store and Google Play store soon.
Middle or high school students interested in participating can sign up at positivityoutward.org/mentee.
"We want this to be an ongoing program, and we are really hopeful that students who can benefit from this in Lovell, Basin, Burlington, Greybull and other rural communities in the area will sign up," Tolman said.
This story was published on Sept. 1, 2022.