January 9th, 2020
Posted In: Advocacy

MENTOR is proud to announce this year’s recipients of the Excellence in Mentoring Awards! These awards are presented annually to individuals and organizations that have made tremendous contributions to young people and the mentoring field. Held at a special Library of Congress reception, this Excellence in Mentoring Awards Dinner will kick off the tenth-annual National Mentoring Summit. This year, we are excited to present Excellence in Mentoring Awards across four categories: Lifetime Achievement, Corporate Leadership, Public Elevation, and Impactful Philanthropy.

Given to an individual who has dedicated their life’s work to supporting youth through mentoring programs   

2020 Honoree: Elycia Cook
President & CEO, FRIENDS FIRST Inc.

Elycia Cook is the President & CEO of FRIENDS FIRST (FF), a non-profit organization that serves students, their parents and communities by educating and mentoring teens to make positive life choices and develop healthy relationships. She has been with FRIENDS FIRST since 2008. Elycia has fifteen years of experience with positive youth development programs and has managed multi-million dollar budgets. In 2012, FF began the transformation from a singular approach of primary prevention of teen pregnancy to Positive Youth Development focusing on social emotional wellness and a whole-health, whole-child approach while becoming an evidence-informed mentoring organization. STARS (Students Teaching About Relationships and Success) is our signature program where the most vulnerable youth are viewed through an asset-based lens, supported in becoming the change they want to see in their own communities, and helps solve the mentoring crisis as more teens have mentors today and  are becoming a pipeline of future mentors. Elycia led FF in trademarking MentorLifeÔ, which means to always have someone investing in you and always invest in someone else. Today FRIENDS FIRST STARS peer mentoring program is in 10 states, more than 40 schools, and is one of the premier peer mentoring organizations in the country.


Given to an employee from a company listed on the National Corporate Honor Roll who both volunteers their time as a youth mentor and mobilizes others to engage in the mentoring movement   

2020 Honoree: Elizabeth Gurney
Director of Corporate Philanthropy, KeyBank and Executive Director, First Niagara Foundation

Elizabeth S. Gurney is Director of Corporate Philanthropy at KeyBank and responsible for managing the KeyBank Foundation. Gurney guides KeyBank’s strategic philanthropic investments across the enterprise with a focus on education, neighborhood prosperity, workforce development and community service. In 2016, Gurney joined KeyBank following the acquisition of First Niagara Bank. She continues to serve as Executive Director of the First Niagara Foundation, an independent private foundation working collaboratively with KeyBank in its mission to empower individuals and neighborhoods through strategic investments in education, mentoring, workforce development, and neighborhood revitalization with giving focused primarily in Western New York. The First Niagara Foundation is a “spend down” fund with a targeted end date of 2022. Hired in 2011 as the first Executive Director of the First Niagara Foundation, Gurney developed and created the organizational and procedural structure for the Foundation, and continues to oversee its management, investments and administration. At First Niagara Bank, Gurney was responsible for formulating policies and developing long-range planning initiatives for corporate social responsibility across First Niagara’s Northeast footprint. She also directed employee volunteer activities, provided leadership for the corporate United Way campaign, managed the signature Mentoring Matters℠ program, and partnered with the community development team to oversee community investments, philanthropy and service. Actively working to make a positive impact on the community, Gurney serves in a leadership position on several boards including the Children’s Foundation, the Josephine Goodyear Foundation and the Buffalo Sabres Foundation. Previous board experience includes the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care, WNY Grantmakers and Goodwill Industries.


Given to an individual who uses their influence and public platform to support mentoring opportunities for youth  

2020 Honoree: Indiana State Senator Eddie D. Melton

Eddie Melton was elected State Senator for Indiana’s 3rd District on November 8, 2016. Melton serves as the Ranking Minority Member on the Senate Education Committee and in 2017 was appointed Deputy Chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party. In addition to serving in the Indiana General Assembly, Melton serves as the manager of Corporate Citizen and Employee Engagement for Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) where he developed the IN-POWER Mentoring program, an initiative designed to teach students about the energy sector. Eddie is also the founder of The Mentoring Trust, a non-profit organization designed to help organizations build and design mentoring programs for youth.

Melton has been recognized with multiple awards and accolades, such as; the top “20 Under 40” young professionals in Northwest Indiana by the NWI Times Media Company (2010) and is a (2012) South Shore Leadership Award winner and Legislator of the Year by the Indiana Association of Rehabilitation Facilities. Melton was elected by lawmakers from around the country to serve on the Executive Committee of the National Conference of State Legislators. He is a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. and received a B.S. of Organizational Management from Calumet College of St. Joseph.


Given to a foundation, company, individual philanthropist or board member who has made a significant impact on young people through investment of time and funds in mentoring programs, MENTOR Affiliates and/or mentoring initiatives   

2020 Honoree: Robert and Janice McNair Educational Foundation

Robert and Janice McNair started the Robert and Janice McNair Educational Foundation in 1989 in an effort to increase the number of students in Rutherford County, North Carolina who pursued postsecondary education. Realizing the student needs required an individualized approach, the Foundation began a mentoring program for students at one county high school. In 2009, the mentor program was expanded to include every 9th-12th grade students in three county high schools. In 2016, the program was expanded again to include all 7th and 8th graders in three feeder middle schools. Currently, over 200 adult volunteer mentors serve approximately 3,500 7th – 12th grade students, meeting with mentees individually throughout the school year to focus on academic progress as well as college and career awareness and readiness. Additionally, building on the success of this mentor program, in April of this year, the Foundation implemented a new mentor program for recent Rutherford County Schools’ graduates who are pursuing postsecondary education. Approximately 25 Rutherford County Schools and Foundation alumni are mentoring over 140 current college students in an effort to increase postsecondary success for our students.


MENTOR is also pleased to recognize the following outstanding finalists in each Excellence in Mentoring Category:


Victor Barnett
Founder and Executive Director, Running Rebels Community Organization

At the age of 19, Victor Barnett saw a need in the community and decided to do something about it.  In 1980, gangs were starting to heavily recruit in Milwaukee and Victor wanted to create an alternative for the community’s youth to deter them from joining gangs and participating in other high-risk behaviors. He set-up shop at a local park and used basketball as a tool to engage and mentor the neighborhood youth.  Over the course of the first 15 years (with no funding), Victor mentored hundreds of youth. When Victor asked the youth what their name should be, the youth said, “Running Rebels” (based off the popular UNLV basketball team). This is how the Running Rebels Community Organization was born. Under Victor’s leadership, the organization grew to now employ over 130 men and women from the community to work with the youth within their own community in the areas of prevention, intervention (working with justice-involved youth), and transition (workforce development, college preparation, and a scholarship program).  


David Watt
Missoula Aging Services Volunteer

Navy Veteran David Watt, known as “Grandpa Dave” has been committed to a lifetime of service, and he continues his service to his community with Senior Corps after retirement. David joined the Navy as a Seaman Apprentice and while in the Navy, David worked his way up to an E-9 position titled, Command Master Chief. David worked on Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 from 1962-1969. Mentoring relationships played an important role in David’s career, and now, for over 16 years, David has spent most of his time servicing communities through volunteering. His most recent work includes volunteering at the Missoula Foster Grandparent Program from the last 13 years. He spent 2 years on the Missoula Aging Services Advisory Council, 6 as an RSVP volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House, and 12 years and counting as a Foster Grandparent at Missoula’s Pre-school Head Start. He is a master of teaching ‘life skills’ simply to young people. With Missoula’s Aging Services. With 15,475 hours devoted to youth as a Foster Grandparent and 1,700 as an RSVP volunteer, Dave’s service exemplifies outstanding civic engagement, community leadership and healthy aging.



Ronald Diner
Director, Strategic Community Partnerships, Raymond James, Founder of Lunch Pals

Ronald Diner founded and leads Lunch Pals – a partnership between Raymond James and Pinellas County Schools.  Participants have lunch each week with a student who will benefit from a mentor. At the end of the 2018-2019 school year, more than 1,500 children had a Lunch Pal, from more 130 companies and community organizations. More than 200 members of the Raymond James’ staff are Lunch Pals. Lunch Pals has received awards from the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Association of Partners in Education, and the Pinellas Education Foundation. AARP has featured Lunch Pals in their national publication. Ron is a Lunch Pal to two 7th grade students, with whom he has had lunch for four and five years. Ron also leads a partnership with Mount Vernon Elementary School, focusing on objectives to increase student achievement. Ron was formerly the President of Raymond James Tax Credit Funds, the leading provider of equity to developers of affordable rental housing nationwide. Ron has served on the board of directors of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Suncoast and he has been the president of several other community organizations.


Quinn Smeaton
Social Responsibility Program Manager, Libra Group

As Social Responsibility Program Manager, Quinn Smeaton oversees the onboarding and recruitment process for the Libra Internship Program. She joined the Libra Group in 2014 as Program Administrator and was promoted to Program Officer in 2015. Prior to joining Libra, she was a coordinator for HSBC’s Global Banking & Markets Graduate Recruitment and Development Program for the Americas region.

She earned her undergraduate degree from American University’s School of International Service in 2013 where she majored in International Studies with a minor in education. During her academic career, Quinn interned with the Foreign Policy Association, the Council on Foreign Relations and worked as Peer Advisor at American University’s Career Center. Quinn also studied abroad in Nairobi, Kenya.



Margaret Bernstein
Director of Advocacy and Community Initiatives, WKYC

Margaret Bernstein is the Director of Advocacy and Community Initiatives at WKYC studios in Cleveland. An award-winning volunteer as well as journalist, she was named the National Big Sister of the Year in 2000 for her work with two Cleveland girls, Cora and Ernestine. Margaret has continually used her platform in the news media to champion the cause of mentoring.  Under her direction, WKYC launched “Mentor Monday” last year, an on-air recruitment blitz that inspired 125 volunteers to sign up in one day to mentor the first class of students receiving Say Yes to Education college scholarships. The one-day awareness campaign had a huge ripple effect, helping spur a total of 1,000 professionals to volunteer as mentors for first-generation college students through Cleveland’s College Now Program. 


LeMarcus Newman
Program Manager, Change Happens’ My Brother’s Keeper mentoring program, an initiative supported by the Obama Foundation.

LeMarcus Newman is a former Professional Football player and a Houston Independent dependent School Product of Worthing High school. He was name 2019 King Award by the Emerging 100, 2019 Houston Lawyers Association Community Award, 2019 The Links Community Award, 2018 Top Texas Top 50 Black Professionals, Top 100 Modern Man of the year by Black Enterprise, Houston Business Journal Role Model of the Year Award for Diversity, Houston Black Association of Realtor Community Award and Phoenix Women Community Award, 2017 Top 100 Modern Men of the year by Black Enterprise. LeMarcus Newman currently serves as the Change Happens’ My Brother’s Keeper mentoring program, an initiative supported by the Obama Foundation. He recently served as the Designated Signature Officer and International Advisor for Texas Southern University. He has worked diligently to increase the international student population on the Texas Southern campus from 377 to more than 900 students in a four year time span, helping bring in over $41,000,000. Newman is the son of Leo and Dorothy Newman, he is married to Amber Newman, who is the CEO of the Boys and Girls Club and has three children – Amai, Lathan and Zack Newman. He was mentor by former Washington Redskins Hall of Famer Darrell Green and former Executive Director of the NFL the Late Eugene Upshaw level of GS13, which is the third highest position as a Civilian.



The Grable Foundation

The Grable Foundation, founded in 1976, is guided by their mission to help children and youth become independent, caring, contributing members of society by supporting programs critical to a child’s successful development. With a focus on southwestern Pennsylvania, they seek out nonprofit partners who share their commitment to making the region the best place to be a kid. The foundation focuses its grant making in the areas of Early Childhood, Public Schools, Out of School Time, Families and Community. The Grable Foundation is responsible for the founding of MENTOR Affiliate the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Their extraordinary efforts have resulted in more than 22,000 youth being mentoring annually. In the past 20 years, the Grable Foundation has provided more than $8.7M to support mentoring programs and efforts. They recognize the importance of stand-alone mentoring programs and the inclusion of mentoring as a key component of many other activities that kids engage in.


Thomasina L. Hiers
Vice President, Center for Civic Sites and Community Change
The Annie E. Casey Foundation

As vice president of the Center for Civic Sites and Community Change, Thomasina “Tomi” Hiers oversees the Foundation’s place-based investments, including the local Grantmaking and Partnerships in Atlanta and Baltimore and several multisector national community strategies that seek to expand the use of effective programs to advance child well-being.

Previous to her appointment as vice president in 2019, Hiers served as the Foundation’s Baltimore Civic Site director. Prior to joining Casey, Hiers was the executive director of Baltimore’s Promise, a public-private collaborative working to support children’s health and education from cradle to career. She has more than 18 years of experience in state and local government. She previously served as deputy secretary for programs at the Maryland Department of Human Resources; deputy chief of staff to former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; and assistant secretary and chief of staff at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Hiers’ leadership in Baltimore extends beyond her work at the Foundation. She chairs the board of directors for the United Way of Central Maryland. She also serves on the board of directors of the Job Opportunities Task Force and the CASH Campaign of Maryland, as well the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond’s Community Investment Council.


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