by Sharon Marantz Walsh

“The three pillars of support for children,” says Matilda Cuomo, “are the home, the school, and the community.”

MENTORS MATTER

Do you recall that special someone in your life who helped you become the person you are today? In the words of Walter Cronkite, “No one does anything in his life on his own…there are always caring people who shape our lives and our careers, whose influences stays with us for the rest of our lives.”

For Oprah Winfrey, it was Mrs. Duncan, her fourth grade teacher, who changed her life by letting her know it was okay to be smart. For a young Diane Sawyer, just beginning her career in journalism, it was the news director in Louisville, Kentucky, who believed she could do the job, encouraging her with direct compliments as well as direct criticism. And for President Clinton, he gives thanks to his grandparents and mother for their unconditional love and support –and to President Mandela, who taught him that one can serve well, only when the heart and mind is totally focused on the work at hand.

These meaningful words and the testimonials of almost 100 prominent people who shared stories of the most important mentors in their lives is the soul of Mrs Cuomo’s book, “The Persons Who Changed My Life.” The rationale and inspiration for doing her book, encouraging the expansion of the Mentoring USA program, came from her daughter, attorney and mother of three beautiful daughters, Madeline Cuomo O’Donoghue.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: One Child At A Time

“Unfortunately, our schools cannot do it all for our children, particularly for those at risk, and neither can their parents,” says Matilda Cuomo. Many of today’s children are confronted with poverty, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, and separated families. So many lack the encouragement and support to envision positive alternatives. Lacking the academic skills necessary to break the cycle of poverty, many are at risk for dropping out of school. These children desparately need role models to make them feel special, to complete their education and to reach their full potential. “Mentoring is an investment that can enrich a child for a lifetime…and a mentor can be a lifetime hero to a child,” continued Mrs. Cuomo.

MENTORING USA: The Mission

Mentoring USA, founded in 1987 is the largest school, community-based one-to-one mentoring program in New York City and with HELP USA, operates more than 90 mentoring programs in the New York metro area which provides mentors to 1,000 children between the age of 5-18 every year. These children include those in foster care, children who have been homeless, children who have recently immigrated to this country, and youth who have experienced family trauma. Mentoring USA’s mission is to anchor these children in the form of early, consistent, frequent and supported attention by trained adult mentors. The presence of a consistent, caring adult mentor increases self-esteem, improves academic performance and attendance, improves relationships with peers and adults, and prevents school dropout.

MENTORING USA: Site Models

Mentoring USA programs are incubated in partnering schools, community centers, foster care agencies, and other not-for-profits. All sites are supported by Program Managers who work directly with Site Supervisors to ensure a comfortable and safe environment between mentor and mentee. Through this site model, mentors and mentees meet in a supervised setting at a prescribed time and place: a format that not only allows the volunteer mentors to properly manage their busy schedule, but also provides much needed consistency to the mentoring relationship. One-on-one simply refers to the match between mentor and mentee, designed to focus full attention on one youth in order to build a trusting relationship. Additional options are provided for rewarding group activities and presentations and all mentors are asked to commit four to six hours per month for one school year, although many will continue their work for two or more years.

PROGRAM INITIATIVES

Mentoring USA’s programs incorporate a number of initiatives that include Foster Care and English Language Learner Programs, Financial Literacy, Career Development Initiative, Healthy Lifestyles & Self Esteem. Programs in Art and Anti-Violence have also been incorporated through outside facilitators like the Cornell Cooperative Extension. Along with completing Mentoring USA activities, mentors also help their mentees with schoolwork, play games that encourage socialization, provide guidance, advice, and simply listen to their mentee. Every mentee is different and each mentoring relationship is different but the mutual rewards are undeniable.

In the words of one New York Foundling mentee, “Before I was rowdy and reacted to situations. My mentor has helped me realize that it is ok to get angry, but that I need to control it and turn my anger into something positive. I can express myself to her because she’s not too far from my age and she has made mistakes that I can learn from and avoid making.”Says another young woman, “Mentoring is important to me. It makes me realize that I am not the only one going through difficult moments. I feel like I’m not along in this world.”

BRAVE: Anti-Violence Education

Seeking to measurably improve a child’s chance of living a more peaceful, harmonious and productive life, Mentoring USA has introduced the BRAVE (Bias Related Anti-Violence Education) Juliana project which employs mentors to serve as ambassadors of cultural diversity to their mentees; adults work with youth on nonviolent conflict resolution and developing respect and compassion for others. Youth are encouraged to live their lives without bullying or hate.

FROM LADY GAGA TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Mentoring USA is proud to continue its partnership with the White House to improve the academic and social development of children in the most under-served schools and communities throughout America and will also partner with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in an innovative wraparound mentoring program in New York City as well as the City of New York’s Young Men’s Initiative, to specifically address chronic absenteeism among adolescent black and Latin American males. Going on the road, Mentoring USA will join the Lady Gaga Born this Way Foundation for their Born Brave Bus Tour.

“REACH FOR THE STARS”: Bloomingdales celebrates National Mentoring Month

Through the Mentoring USA program at nearby PS 59, Bloomingdale’s volunteers have mentored elementary school children for eight years. Currently, 90 Bloomingdale’s executives spend an hour every week with their mentees, talking, sharing, tutoring and encouraging their mentees to dream big for their future. For the fifth year, Bloomingdales commemorates their collaboration with Mentoring USA with window dedications; this years theme of “Reaching for the Stars” celebrates ambition, good sportsmanship, creativity and faith. Says Michael Gold, Chairman and CEO of Bloomingdales, “Mentoring is one of those rare experiences….where you can be part of the greatest kind of achievement, helping a child.” In 2012, Bloomingdales Vice President Richard Pitelli, a 12 year mentor, was awarded Mentor of the Year; the award was presented by First Lady Michelle Obama.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Mentoring USA has expanded nationally as well as internationally with affiliate programs throughout Italy, Spain, and Morocco. “Today, there are millions of children around the world waiting for a mentor to help them,” says actor Martin Sheen. “Improving the world starts with one child.”

Children have the potential to change the face of the world. All they need from us is love, guidance, and someone who believes in them. You can make a difference in a child’s life by becoming a mentor, or by contributing to www.mentoringusa.org. Text “MENTOR” to 80100 and a $5 donation will be made to Mentoring USA through your cell phone bill. You may text up to five times ($25) per day. FACEBOOK: www.facebook.com/Mentoring USA; Follow on Twitter @mentoringusa.