At MENTOR New York, we have been working closely with our partners and providing guidance on how to best support the young people in their programs during this challenging time.
We see firsthand how they prioritize the needs of young people, which is why we are telling the stories of these incredible mentoring heroes!
MENTOR New York's CEO,
Brenda Jimenez, thanks the mentoring heroes who are serving young people throughout this pandemic.
…the values, principles and method.
How MENTOR NY Supported Chris's Work
“The values, the principles, and the method that you (MENTOR NY) use is very helpful. When it comes to mentee orientation, I am always thinking about the best way to connect the kids with the youth workers. Now I’m very big on including kids in the process. Is there anybody they feel they connect best with to support them? The webinar really helped me to focus on that.”
Chris Winningham, Jr.
Youth Social Work Supervisor, Henry Street Settlement Urban Family Center
Everybody needs somebody. They need somebody different, custom-made and best-suited for them. What motivates me should be being highly adaptable to all situations and circumstances.
Among all the changes and preventative actions taken during COVID-19, Chris Winningham, Jr. continues to make sure the needs and voices of young people aren’t overlooked.
As the Youth Social Work Supervisor of Henry Street Settlement Urban Family Center, the country’s first apartment-style temporary shelter with on-site social services for homeless families with children, he not only works as a social worker helping with tasks like food distribution, but he also supervises the youth programming.
In his work during the pandemic, Chris identified the most challenging thing to be the uncertainty, specifically related to the uncertainty for youth.
“Like when schools shut down, not knowing what was coming next,” said Chris. “We knew they needed to continue their education, but we didn’t know how that was gonna happen.”
Knowing this uncertainty would have a great impact on youth, Chris focused on building safe spaces for expression and on encouraging advocacy.
Creating Safe Spaces
While running a socially-distanced summer camp, Chris was able to help one of the kids open up about some of the more serious challenges that he was experiencing. Chris then realized that his role was not only to provide programming around needs, but also about creating a safe zone for youth to feel comfortable opening up.
Especially during the pandemic, “the challenging part about that is they might not be able to express and communicate what it is or what they need support around,” said Chris. In those cases, he finds it’s important to be there to provide the safe space to have those conversations, finding out what their true needs are, and channeling up the needs to the support group.
Knowing that young people’s voices have power, Chris encourages the youth in his program to use that power to advocate for themselves.
“It [the pandemic] is happening for everybody on every level. But for the kids, a lot of times they got overlooked,” said Chris. Seeing that happen, he encouraged self-advocacy and stepped in at times when he could help advocate on their behalf.
Through his work, Chris keeps young people at the forefront, remembering “life is still happening around them, but life is also happening to them.”
...webinars and round tables.
How MENTOR NY Supported Deismond's Work
Through MENTOR New York's partnership with the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), Deismond was able to join a round table discussion with other mentoring providers and share challenges and successes faced during the pandemic.
Director, Hunts Point Beacon Site for Young Men's Initiative (YMI) Program
In a time of incredible uncertainty, Deismond Rosa, Director of the Hunts Point Beacon Program, was able to remain sure of one thing. Doing nothing was not, and simply could not, be an option. Always Inspired by the youth that he serves, he was propelled to find new and unique ways to support them.
When the pandemic hit, Deismond wasted no time answering the different calls to action.
Very early on, Deismond and his team had the idea to purchase personal hotspots for the families they serve, sometimes going to their homes to teach them how to set it up. There were even days when Deismond would park his car outside his students’ homes so that they could use his hotspot to complete their assignments. His strong desire to simply be there to support them on their journey to success never wavered, even when everything else did.
Nurturing Students’ Interests
Before the pandemic, the after school program had offered a space for students to socialize with their peers and have fun while also receiving academic support.
Knowing how important this was for the students, Deismond and his program found ways to successfully make those elements of the program virtual. Students were able to participate in music theory, computer coding and arts and crafts.
The Needs of the Community
While many programs battled unique challenges, the Hunts Point Beacon Program was no different. Through the program’s food pantry, Deismond and his team began to create food boxes and distribute them to families.
Food would be sent out to all five boroughs three times a week. Some families struggled on non-distribution days, but Deismond and his team helped by providing families with gift cards if they ran out of food.
In a time of change, Deismond and his program made sure to remain consistent. They truly personified what it means to be an ally to the students that they serve, ensuring that their needs were being met and that they felt supported every step of the way.
...helping us to tailor our program.
How MENTOR NY Supported Kailin's Work
"Going to the MENTOR NY webinars and understanding how to better build a mentoring program that tailors to the youth that we’re serving and figuring out the best plan for when mentors and mentees have to part ways has been very helpful.”
Peer Educator / Peer Mentor Supervisor, Native American Community Services
“The youth are our future. They have so much potential and when given the opportunity to learn and grow, they can really maximize that potential tenfold…I want to help them create the future that they want it to be.”
Even during these trying times, Kailin Kucewicz, Peer Mentor Supervisor at the Native American Community Services, is continuously inspired by the youth that she serves and remains committed to assisting them on their journey of realizing their fullest potential.
For Kailin and her program, transitioning to a virtual model was no easy task. She was constantly checking in with her youth to ensure their needs were being met and going the extra mile of engaging them through a series of fun activities and interesting conversations.
Navigating Uncharted Territory
Like many other programs who’ve had to overcome unique challenges brought on by the pandemic, the Native American Community Services was no exception. “Mentoring in person is so much different than mentoring virtually,” said Kailin.
Trying to meet regularly with the youth, especially at the beginning, didn’t always go as planned. Because some of them were going through things that the program staff didn’t always know about, attendance at these online meetings would fluctuate. “There are things that are completely out of our control–no matter how hard we try to make things accessible to them,” said Kailin.
Knowing this certainly did not discourage them from trying. If anything, it only fueled Kailin and her program to do more. From attending different webinar trainings to talking to other programs and figuring out best practices, they went to new heights to find the best resources and tools to help engage their youth during this time. “When we are able to meet, it is wonderful,” shared Kailin.
“Something they really need more of right now is support with mental health,” said Kailin.
This was especially true in early June when the protests were at their peak, explained Kailin. For some of her kids, these protests were taking place out in their front yards. Understanding the impact this could have on the youth, Kailin and her staff educated themselves on how to best support them.
As a result, part of Kailin’s work has been helping the kids process all of the things happening and continuing to remind them that these aren’t normal circumstances. That this is a historical time that we are living in. “Anything they’re able to accomplish while processing and dealing with all of these things is incredible,” she said.
“If we’re able to help the youth see what the future can hold for them, they can build that future for themselves.”
How MENTOR NY Supported Lynne's Work
“I found the recent webinars to be incredibly helpful, particularly the one on Mentoring Boys and Youth of Color because we have primarily youth of color at the center. It is important that we come prepared with evidence-based information about how we can be the most effective mentorship program we can be."
Health Education and Outreach Supervisor, Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York
“It is my job to do something kind for people because people were kind to me.”
Even when the pandemic came and turned the world completely upside down, Lynne Neveu, Health Education & Outreach Supervisor at Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York, did not for a second forget what she was fighting for. More importantly, she never forgot the who.
Having come from an upbringing in which her teachers made up the core of her primary support system, Lynne always held the belief that those relationships were what truly helped pave the way for the success that she was able to achieve later in life. By helping her with her applications and ensuring that some of her most basic needs, like having access to food, were being met, her mentors were what ultimately guided her down the college trajectory.
The crucial role that mentoring has played in her life is what currently motivates Lynne to do the work that she is now fully engaged in and passionate about, especially during COVID-19.
“We’ve been trying to make ourselves a hub of information,” said Lynne. “We’ve pivoted a lot of our Facebook content to be what’s available in the community even if we don’t necessarily offer it.” Not only have Lynne and her team completely shifted the way their program operates in order to meet the community’s immediate needs, they have also found other ways to change the state of their programming in an effort to encourage online participation.
Helping Keep Kids Motivated
From hosting virtual game nights and fitness classes to having food delivered to her mentees' homes, Lynne and her team have found fun and innovative ways to keep them motivated.
Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York started putting on numerous events ranging from game night to online fitness classes. Students who participated in and were victors of these virtual games would receive the prize of having food delivered to their house.
Even online, Lynne and her team have cultivated a fun and supportive environment in which the students are able to come together and receive a degree of normalcy. “Kids love online games… they’re learning something,” Lynne said.
Even Without Wifi
Lynne didn’t only think about online services. Knowing that not all the youth they serve have access to Wifi, she went the extra mile to support them. “We have a family that doesn’t have internet at home,” said Lynne. “So I went through the basement of our center and found board games, tie-dye kits to give them.”
“We’ve been reinforcing that even though we’re not here [physically], we’re still here for them.”
...connecting the region.
How MENTOR NY Supported Jared's Work
“MENTOR NY has been able to build up a roster of folks that can share their experiences at this time and that’s been very beneficial...to be able to connect with other people across the region who are engaged in similar work and to be able to learn best practices as well as being able to talk about the similar issues we’re all having and the ways in which people are breaking through those problems."
Admin Director / Program Manager CHIME Administrative Director, Empire State Youth Orchestra
“It’s the importance of art. I know how students use music as a tool for expression and I want them to be able to have all the opportunities.”
Jared Shortmeier had to mobilize his music teachers and students quickly when the pandemic hit. As the Program Director of the Empire State Youth Orchestra, a program in Schenectady NY where students are offered a wide range of unique opportunities to receive professional music lessons at the highest level, Jared knew that time was short to prepare for virtual learning.
“I called all the teaching artists and said please get to the schools if you can and distribute all the instruments,” said Jared. “I don’t think we’re going to be allowed back in the building.” Jared and his team took immediate action fueled by uncertainty and urgency mixed with unwavering determination to see their students excel.
Working Through the Challenges
Students faced many different pressures from not only their in-school classes but also the daily pressures of being isolated from their typical routine. For some, finding a quiet space to practice posed a severe challenge. “We’ll have lessons and students are in rooms with other people, little brothers and sisters or parents or grandparents or whoever and it doesn't make for an ideal lesson environment,” Jared shared.
Despite these challenges, Jared and his team were able to find creative ways to keep their students engaged and make it a fun learning experience.
Discovering New Possibilities
The experience of virtual learning opened up possibilities that couldn’t have been imagined before. Jared explained that remote instruction was “a really great way for us to stay in touch because our students come from 10 different school districts and meeting weekly is just not possible. I never thought about meeting virtually before but now that we’ve done it for two months, it has illuminated that it is possible.”
Community Healing Through Music
No matter what was going on, Jared and his students never forgot about their community. The students started reaching out to local nursing homes to figure out if they had the ability to stream solo pieces that they were putting together on video.
“They [the students] wanted to create a virtual playlist of music to share with the community,” Jared said. “They're thinking about having a virtual fundraising concert. Proceeds would go towards artists who’ve been impacted financially by the crisis.”
The students recently completed the community playlist: Playing through the Pause. Watch and listen here!
...really grateful for their services.
How MENTOR NY Supported Ariyanna's Work
“I'm just really grateful that MENTOR NY came through my email... It’s really helped me evaluate; even when I’ve been with my program for so long, it’s really helped me find the gaps in the program and the ways that we can improve.”
Grant Technician / Mentor, GEAR UP
“I needed someone that looked like me. I’m a big believer that cultural representation matters, and so I didn't have anyone that looked like me that also truly, in my opinion, cared about me. Of course, my family, my friends, but as far as leadership in education, I didn't feel like I had that. So the first day I started working with Gear Up and then until now, that’s what keeps me going.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ariyanna Simmons was driven to continue connecting and serving her mentees. After five years with GEAR UP, a mentoring program through Nassau Community College, she knew the impact that mentoring relationships can have on young people.
“We’ve just been trying to figure out how we can really implement all of the resources at our disposal to help our students.”
Services for Seniors
In addition to keeping lines of communication open with weekly zooms, Ariyanna helped plan virtual workshops offered by GEAR UP throughout June to their high school mentees. These were a chance to connect with students, especially the seniors who were grappling with how quickly their final months of high school had changed.
“My program has worked really hard to - and they are consistently working to - make sure that they are in contact with the seniors to give them college guidance,” said Ariyanna. In the past, students “were able to contact their university or at least go to the guidance counselor at their high schools, but now that everything is closed down, it’s like now ‘how do i fill out my FASFA form,’ ‘how do I see if the university received my application,’ all these questions that go into applying for college.”
“They’re still really optimistic.”
Ariyanna is inspired by her students who displayed resilience and optimism during the pandemic, confirming that empowering young people with confidence is important. “When you lay out that foundation and let them know that they are capable to do whatever they set their minds to do regardless of what happens, you see the fruit of that in times like this,” said Ariyanna. One of her mentees is “excited for college despite [the pandemic], and he’s hopeful. And that’s honestly all I can ask for as a mentor.”
...incredibly helpful and effective.
How MENTOR NY Supported Kenneth's Work
“I wouldn’t be able to choose one specific [MENTOR NY] training that has helped me because all the trainings have been helpful and effective. I enjoy the webinar trainings especially as I look for different techniques and strategies to incorporate into my mentoring program.”
Director of Recreation, Knights of Pythagoras
“I do this work because I want to give kids what I didn’t have growing up as a child -- love and consistency. I want to be here to make sure young people in my community have someone that cares for them no matter what happens.”
When the pandemic first hit, without missing a beat, Kenneth Simmons, Director at Knights of Pythagoras was jumping on calls with all 51 of his mentees to check in and to make sure they received adequate support. For weeks, they continued to meet through zoom calls and online chats.
As the weather got warmer, Kenneth knew there had to be a change. He was determined to shift away from the constrained virtual interactions. As an alternative, he started bringing his mentees outdoors for social distancing activities. He tried to bring as much normalcy into their lives as he could.
“They love fishing”
Among the different social distancing activities that he encouraged his mentees to participate in was going to the harbor and fishing. While many had discounted it at the beginning, they have now grown to really enjoy it. Even in bad weather, his mentees still look forward to this trip.
Since Kenneth started embarking on these weekly fishing trips with the kids, he says that there has been an evident change in their attitudes. Through interacting with one another and engaging in these fun activities, many of them have begun to open up more, articulating themselves in a way that they hadn’t before.
He noted that in the last few months only one thing has changed: “We’ve only gotten closer.”
Overcoming Challenges & Unwavering Dedication
Like many other programs, Knights of Pythagoras has been facing financial challenges during the pandemic. Without funding from the city, money oftentimes had to come out of Kenneth’s own pockets.
The mentees faced challenges as well, with many not being able to walk the stage on graduation or in some instances, having parents who lost their jobs due to the economic hardship of the pandemic.
Kenneth’s dedication and advocacy were unwavering and he was able to secure a grant from the public school that provided weekly meals to kids: 100 boxes of food Monday-Friday for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everyone gets fed, which according to Kenneth, is always a win in his book.
“COVID-19 has brought me and my mentees closer together. My mentees realized during this pandemic that they don’t need everything they thought they did. They have greater appreciation for the little things.”
...incredibly helpful to me.
How MENTOR NY Supported Olivia's Work
“I saw on the MENTOR NY website that there are resources for mentorship programs during COVID-19... It has helped me put together the ones most relevant to our program to send to our mentors. There are so many awesome resources on there and I feel that every organization should be taking advantage of them. They’ve been incredibly helpful to me.”
Executive Director, For Every Little Handprint
“It is my belief that every child deserves endless opportunities.”
“Not here in Buffalo. Not here in NY State. Not anywhere in the world should the childhood poverty rate be almost close to fifty-percent,” said Olivia Larson, Executive Director of For Every Little Handprint, a mentoring program for students transitioning from Middle School to High School.
In a world full of altruistic people and an abundance of resources, Olivia reasons that it is the duty of all of us to step up and contribute in any way that we are able to ensure that our youths are well cared for and given the proper opportunities to succeed.
A pandemic does not pardon us from that responsibility. For Olivia, it has always been important “that children aren’t losing their childhood because of economic instability,” and she didn’t let the pandemic stop her from wanting to support them.
Communicating Through Letters
With the determination to provide mentees with a sense of normalcy came a unique decision to not utilize Zoom or any other video communications tool. Instead, Olivia and her team decided to establish letter-writing as the primary form of communication between mentors and mentees at For Every Little Handprint.
“With COVID-19, what we’re doing is having the mentors and the mentees write letters to each other, and communicating that way,” Olivia said. “I feel that for the girls, there’s meaning to writing a letter. I feel that it is a really valuable moment of reflection for them. I never want to turn the program into something the girls aren’t looking forward to.”
She further explained that she didn’t want to overburden the girls with Zoom calls when they’re already being bombarded with them throughout the day. “I didn’t want them to feel like the Zoom call with their mentor to be another thing added on to that list.”
Going Above & Beyond
“A lot of our girls were going to different schools and there were a lot of girls who just didn’t know what school would look like next year,” said Olivia. Not only were students feeling extremely uncertain and possibly pessimistic of what the future would look like, many were also facing problems in the present such as food insecurity and the deviation from their normal routines.
“One thing we’re working on right now is doing care packages for our mentees. Each girl is receiving books, journals, jump ropes to stay active, as well as coloring books,” said Olivia. “We reached out to mentors to see what their mentees' particular interests were so we could add things that were more in line with each girl’s interests. A really big part of For Every Little Handprint for me is making sure that everything is individualized and personal for the person receiving it.”
With the mentees in mind, Olivia is continuously driven to do everything in her power to look for creative ways to support them and different opportunities to connect them to.
....an incredible resource for us.
How MENTOR NY Supported Stephanie & Tereka's Work
“Being able to get on the [MENTOR NY] webinars and finding out more information and different ways to keep our mentees and mentors engaged, as well as finding out different resources for us... [MENTOR NY] has helped us evaluate how we can make it more engaging and more fun as well as best practices when it comes to being a virtual program.”
Scholar Mentoring Supervisor, Say Yes Buffalo
Mentoring Program Coordinator, Say Yes Buffalo
“My drive for getting up everyday doing what we do is seeing the faces of the students when they realize that there is help there. We are here to provide them with a mentor to relinquish any anxiety that they may have about going to college or being in high school and to make sure that they are successful,” said Tereka.
“The motivation for me comes from my own experience. When I was growing up, I had a mentor who really pushed me to go beyond what I believed that I could have been or done. I think the students we serve really need that extra push and opportunity, especially students of color,” said Stephanie.
An innate drive and motivation powered both Tereka Baltimore and Stephanie Rivera as they navigated unchartered territory and continued going above and beyond for the students and mentees of Say Yes Buffalo. In the midst of a global health crisis, where no one had the answers, they never lost sight of that vision and desire to see their students thrive and be cared for.
Stephanie, Mentoring Program Coordinator, and Tereka, Scholar Mentoring Supervisor, describe that within Say Yes Buffalo they had family support specialists who had “weekly contacts with students where they would check in with mental health and making sure students are staying on course with schoolwork.” Students also benefited from activities Stephanie and Tereka helped plan including workshops and zoom happy hours where the goal was to keep everyone engaged and provide a space where they could freely express themselves.
“There are food needs,” said Stephanie. Working with Buffalo Public Schools, Say Yes Buffalo was able to identify and deliver food to individuals who needed those services. Both Stephanie and Tereka work with older students who live on their own. Tereka said it was important “making sure that any time I speak to a mentee and they say they may need food, house supplies, we’re able to go back to Say Yes, present the need to our colleagues and they’re able to give us the resources to fulfill those needs.”
Bridging the Divide
Not only are they ensuring food security for their students, they also advocated for and succeeded in securing laptops for high school and college mentors and mentees, “making sure that they pass their classes, especially if they are a senior.”
“We see the divide when it comes to having access to electronics to be able to communicate, especially the students we serve,” said Stephanie. In an era of remote learning, access to technology has become absolutely pivotal in ensuring that students are able to attend their classes and be successful. It is also crucial to note that students of color, the primary demographic that Say Yes Buffalo serves, were at a disproportionate disadvantage in terms of access to this necessity for education. This makes the advocacy and overall success of being able to provide these students with a laptop even more significant.
“Collaboration is our secret sauce”
During this unprecedented time, Stephanie and Tereka proactively utilized the community by collaborating with different organizations “from FeedMore WYN to local higher education colleges and universities like UB.” Some of these organizations were offering monthly workshops for their students covering essential topics such as virtual etiquette and college readiness.
“Working together is helping our community,” said Stephanie. “Collaboration is our secret sauce and we do it pretty well.”
...an invaluable thinking partner.
How MENTOR NY Supported Ali's Work
“There’s a lot of just uncharted territory right now and there’s definitely a lot of sensitive issues coming up right now... So having another organization [MENTOR NY] that is so experienced in mentoring and can help us make certain judgement calls is really helpful.”
Managing Director of Programs, Student Sponsor Partners
“Our mission hasn’t changed through COVID-19, but as the needs of our students have really expanded, our level of support for them has expanded as well.”
Ali Hoban feels like she’s racing the clock to get the mentees in her program the resources and technology they need to be successful. As the Managing Director of Programs for Student Sponsor Partners, she has worked tirelessly each day to meet the needs of mentees and mentors.
“We’ve just been trying to figure out how we can really implement all of the resources at our disposal to help our students.”
Racing the Clock
Within the first week of students working from home, Ali and her team discovered that many mentees didn’t have the right technology to be doing their work. Ali said “I worked with the development team to get a grant where we could purchase Chromebooks for all of the students,” but found there was a long wait for technology to arrive because of the high demand.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but [we are] really trying to get as much support to students really quickly,” she said. Ali’s goal is to make sure that the students can end the school year strong.
A Safe Haven for Young People
Ali and her team will continue to “be something that provides a community and provides a safe haven for them [the mentees], even if it’s virtual.”
Ali’s intervention on the behalf of these young people to provide resources and ensure they have a caring adult to turn to is critical during this pandemic. She is a mentoring hero!
...connecting the dots.
How MENTOR NY Supported William's Work
“That’s what MENTOR NY and the conference [National Mentoring Summit] did for me. I knew all this stuff, but connecting the dots and making it all make sense - the conference really did that for me. It really put it into perspective.”
Executive Director, C.O.C.O.A House
“We have the opportunity to walk in greatness. Greatness in our hearts, greatness in our efforts, greatness in the way we go about our lives, the way we live. And for me that’s a choice. It’s the same choice I grant all the youth I come in contact with.”
Not even a pandemic will stop William Rivas from helping his community.
As the Executive Director of C.O.C.O.A. House (Children of Our Community Open to Achievement), William’s work with young people and his community is essential. Each day wearing a mask and gloves, he goes to the homeless shelter to help people get settled and ensure they have access to resources and services. He stays connected to the young people served by the C.O.C.O.A. House program and continues to manage the (now virtual) mentoring program.
William’s mentoring program is near-peer model for Schenectady youth. When the pandemic struck, the college students mentoring wanted to stay connected and go virtual. William describes the mentee's virtual connections with their mentors as magnetic, especially as the college students relate to and help the mentees with virtual school and socializing. Both mentees and mentors love the Virtual Friday Pizza Parties where everyone comes together on Zoom and enjoys pizza delivered by William and other volunteers.
“It all started with an idea.”
Knowing that many families in his community usually rely on school for meals, William found a way to ensure there was a warm meal available to those young people calling the initiative Pizza for the People.
“It all started with an idea. It was just one of those things where [I said to a friend] ‘I just wanna feed people. What do we do?’”
Partnering with Domino’s Pizza, he began going door-to-door hand-delivering pizzas to families most in need. It began in Schenectady at first with weekly pizza deliveries. And then it began to grow until he and other volunteers were delivering pizzas throughout the Capital Region (Schenectady, Albany and Troy) on both Wednesdays and Fridays. Recently, they hit a major milestone of 1,000 pizzas delivered.
“Understanding as a child who grew up in poverty, I know what it’s like to have no lights; I know what it’s like to go nights without food; I know what it's like to have days where your mom is really doing the best she can and it just wasn’t financially working out; and I know what that feels like to a child.”
To his community, his mentors and mentees and to us, William is a hero.
“This is a lifestyle for me. It’s not work, it’s not a job, it’s not a hobby. You know, it’s life. I get up every day to give back.”
YOU CAN SUPPORT MENTORING
MENTOR New York supports the work of mentoring heroes like these throughout NY State. To continue providing this support, we need your help. Consider making a donation or partnering with us to ensure every mentoring hero has access to MENTOR New York's services.
Services include: no-cost consultation, research-based virtual training sessions and peer-learning opportunities. We are their trainer, their thinking partner and their go-to expert on all things mentoring. Help us help them.