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New York's Former First Lady Puts Children First

Matilda Cuomo, founder of Mentoring USA

Mentoring USA works to keep kids in school

Matilda Cuomo - wife, mother, teacher and former first lady of New York State - has perhaps had the most far-reaching impact as founder of Mentoring USA, which has trained volunteer mentors for more than 5,000 schoolchildren nationwide.

Cuomo was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1931, during the Great Depression. Despite the bleak economic conditions, her mother, an Italian immigrant, and her father, the child of immigrants, were intent on realizing the American dream for themselves and their five children.

"I was very fortunate in that regard. They suffered and struggled and sacrificed so much," she says . "They put five children through college without a Pell Grant or government help. You have to honor them for that and appreciate it and be gratified. So that’s how I feel."

Doing whatever is necessary to make life better has been a recurring theme in Cuomo’s life - as a teacher, a mother and a mentor. In 1954, she married a young law student named Mario Cuomo whose long public service career eventually led to the New York State governor’s mansion.

Looking out for children

After that election in 1982, Cuomo also entered public service as a volunteer advocate for children.

The mid-1980s were a difficult time for New York State. The economy was in recession. Crack addiction was becoming epidemic in the cities. The teen pregnancy rate was soaring, and the high school graduation rate was plummeting to record lows. These trends were deeply disturbing to Governor Cuomo.

"And he said to me one morning, ‘The dropout rate, that’s it, I can’t stand it, it’s intolerable. We must do something.’ So I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Well, you’re a mother of five children. You’re a teacher.’ He’s giving me all my background qualifications. He said, ‘You have to get a whole board together, non-partisan, the best you can find, Matilda, and have them figure out with you, concern yourselves with, what are we going to do with these children? How do we keep them in school? How do you inspire them about education like our parents did for us?’ I said, ‘You’re right. It can be done. And it should be done.’"

One-on-one mentoring

And so it was. In 1987, Matilda Cuomo helped establish the nation’s first statewide school-based one-to-one mentoring program. Its work was guided by Cuomo’s belief that a healthy and successful childhood rests on three pillars: a warm and supportive home where the child’s welfare is paramount, a school infused with the joy of learning where respect for the child is coupled with high standards, and a caring community.

"When one of those pillars isn’t working or is dysfunctional, trust me, the child suffers," says Cuomo.

She wanted mentors with the state-run program to act as a bridge among all three elements. They would offer the personal support a family member might provide along with the strong focus on academic achievement of a school. She looked for volunteers from the wider community who could expose young students to the larger world beyond their immediate circles.

Cuomo says individual attention provides the most effective mentoring.

"These children do not thrive unless you give them the one-to-one. When a mentor comes, well-trained - we will do that - and says ‘I am here for you. And we are going to work out your problems. We are going to see why you’re not doing better in English and math and so forth and you are going to your pass your grade. You are going to do better. You are going to graduate.’ This is what I want. This is what I want to see instilled in these children."

Challenging times

The New York State Mentoring Program was hugely successful. Yet when Mario Cuomo left office in 1994, the new governor cut funding for the program. This was a difficult time for Matilda Cuomo. She considered giving up the project, until her son Andrew - who is now the governor of New York State himself - gave her a pep talk.

"He said ‘That’s your baby. You nurture babies. You don’t ever leave them, Mom. So you have to keep it going.’ I said ‘What am I going to call it?’ He said ‘Mentoring USA. Now you can go national.’"

Today, Mentoring USA works with youth in seven states, and Cuomo expects that more states will be signing on soon. She sums up her attitude with an Italian expression she often heard from her father: "passa ci sopra," roughly meaning, "keep on going, never give up."