Mentoring is a time-honored relationship, in which someone with more experience helps another with less, for purposes of growth, knowledge and support. That’s the idea behind Mentoring USA, a New York based non-profit organization that matches children and teens with adults who help them develop self-esteem and make positive life choices.
It is 4 p.m. at P.S. 59, a public school on New York City’s Upper East Side. Most of the children have gone home but today is Wednesday, so fifth grader Baily Raffensperger is still here. He sits at a low table practicing his reading skills with his mentor, Tony Boccia, a 13-year veteran of the Mentoring USA program.
For them, as with the more than 5,000 or so other mentor-mentee pairs that have come through this program, homework help is a big part of the relationship, but there’s more.
"I like having a mentor because it’s kind of like having a mom or a dad at school," says Baily. "Somebody is on your side that you can talk to and that you can play games with. It’s like a really close friend.”
Both seem to enjoy the flexibility the mentoring relationship allows. Boccia finds that sometimes his mentee will want guidance, while at other times it may be game-playing or academic help.
"It’s whatever they need. And I can only say that over the years I’ve always gotten back a lot more than I’ve given," says Boccia. "It’s just wonderful working with the children and sharing the experience with them."
PS 59 principal Adele Schroeter (left) and Mentoring USA founder Matilda Cuomo are dedicated to the mentoring ideal.
Joy of service
That joy of service has been at the core of Mentoring USA’s mission since it began in 1987.
Founder Matilda Cuomo's experience as a mother of five, former school teacher and former first lady of New York State, convinced her that parents, schools and communities all benefit from what mentors give children.
"The parents feel good when the child is getting help. It’s a natural thing," says Cuomo. "And the school realizes that this child needs help, and they can bring in the mentor."
For children, mentors can occupy an emotional space somewhere between teachers, parents and friends. Mentees who have written about their experiences often report seeking advice from mentors about issues they’re not ready to talk about with anyone else.
"There are kids who have a difficult issue in school or they’ve got tension with friends or at home," says P.S. 59 principal Adele Schroeter, "and the mentor is like someone to try it out on."
About 25 percent of the students at P.S. 59 are immigrants who have come to the US within the past year. Mentors often help these children adjust to their new environment.
"Our kids do a pretty good job of welcoming new class members in and our teachers do a really good job," says Schroeter, "but the mentor is just one more person who can help them make that transition, help make them feel comfortable."
She adds that simply having a caring mentor gives mentees an important civics lesson.
"We try to communicate to kids the idea that they have kind of a commitment to society and to each other and I think the benefit from the modeling of the mentors themselves [because mentors] are really good citizens."
The mentors in the program are volunteers, not professional therapists, teachers or social workers. Still, according to Cuomo, all are rigorously screened and trained.
"We take it very seriously because you are putting a child in the hands of a volunteer," she says. "I wanted to make sure that the training was par excellence."
Part of that training is diversity awareness, a necessity in the Big Apple, perhaps the most ethnically diverse city in the world.
The mentors and mentees often come from widely different social, economic and cultural backgrounds, and it is often a rich learning experience for both simply to be together at all.
"The mentor has to be trained to understand the sense of diversity we are living with today," says Cuomo.
Educators and parents agree: being mentored is a win-win-win-win for parents, schools, communities and, most importantly, children.