This September, we are celebrating Back to School by exploring the difference mentors can make in the lives of students.
Student/Partner Alliance (S/PA) is a non-profit dedicated to providing urban students in the greater Newark, NJ area the support they need to graduate high school with a college preparatory education. S/PA matches students with caring, consistent mentors who stay with them from freshman to senior year of high school and, sometimes, even longer than that.
Todd Guillaume started with the program as a mentee. Many of his friends were already enrolled, but Todd says the main reason he joined “was the opportunity for extra money,” referring to the scholarships S/PA provides. Then he met Bruce Reitz and found, in his mentor, he had received something much more valuable. The son of immigrants from Haiti, Todd had assumed – even with scholarships – he would be unable to attend college; but Bruce, a first generation college student himself, understood the challenges and provided the concrete steps Todd needed to engage his guidance counsellors, submit the application, and complete the financial aid forms.
Bruce, who is also a Trustee for Student/Partner Alliance, has served as a mentor since 1997. To him, the most important part is being present. “With Todd and all the young men, I try to talk to them and attend all the functions they’re in,” he recalls. “He was a football player, so I would attend his games so he could see someone cares. I’ve done that with all my mentees. Whether they’re in volleyball, baseball, basketball, or a choir recital, I try to be visible to them.”
Hervluida, a recent graduate, agrees this visibility helps students succeed. “Throughout my 4 years, Regina was very supportive, like the most supportive and kindest person I’ve met,” she recalls fondly. “She came to all my track meets and was very helpful with the college process.” Regina Daly drove her to visit college campuses and, when Hervluida was turned down from her top schools, Regina visited during the school day to cheer her on. “I’m a first generation student and my parents don’t really know what I’m going through,” Hervluida explains. “But Regina does. She understood why I was sad and helped me through it.”
“Mark encouraged me to do things that are very difficult for me,” says Jared, a mentee who also graduated this year. During his junior year, Jared was struggling to keep up with the daily quizzes in history class. When Jared told his mentor about his difficulties communicating with the teacher, Mark Tanner replied: “the study methods he recommends may not be the most useful for you, so try to learn some new ones.”
Mark also encouraged Jared to start his own organization. During his senior year, Jared, who is on the autism spectrum, decided to organize a group of students with autism dedicated to helping others. Together, they formed Jared’s Helping Hands and raised $1000 for the Simpson Baber foundation, an organization that supported Jared while he was growing up. In honor of this work, Mayor Davis of Bayonne declared August 21st “Jared Day.” Jared says Mark’s support was crucial in founding Jared’s Helping Hands.
Ann Kent, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Student/Partner Alliance, says S/PA’s model creates lasting, mutually empowering relationships. “It’s a four year commitment,” she says. “But it often doesn’t end there.” Hervluida intends to keep in touch with Regina Daly, while Jared says he will continue working with Simpson Baber and supporting Jared’s Helping Hands. Bruce is mentoring two young men and continuing to keep in touch with his mentees of years past. A few of them have even returned to the program as mentors, including Todd Guillaume. “This is an amazing program,” says Todd. “It’s hard for you to see it on the mentee side, but the assistance, guidance, and support they provide is amazing. I appreciate S/PA and for letting me be a part of it.”