Workshops for potential new mentors planned for September and October
With more than 2,000 students supervised since the start of the program, the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance is celebrating its 25th anniversary. But today, around 90 students are on the association’s waiting list, hoping to be matched with a mentor who will encourage and guide them through their schooling.
“We rely entirely on community volunteers to become mentors,” said Executive Director Susie Gallo. “Our need for volunteers never goes away.
The alliance is hosting a new mentoring workshop on Thursday, September 23 or October 21, 9 a.m. to noon, to explain the program and the benefits of mentoring. Those who sign up must go through a background check, but the commitment to the program is only one hour per week.
Gallo said that as soon as they match a mentor with a student, another child is nominated for the program. Fewer students were appointed last year as schools were closed, resulting in an even greater need this year. Right now, they have 300 mentors matched with students, but the waiting list still has dozens of students hoping for a match. Although the nonprofit applies for grants and organizes fundraisers, it is an investment of time, not money, that is most needed at this time.
“Investing in students is investing in the future of our community,” said Gallo. “Our students deserve to know all the opportunities available to them.
Gallo started in the midst of the pandemic, taking the reins from program founder Kathy Witkowicki, who served as executive director for nearly 20 years. Both are proud of the success of the program and its contribution.
Mentors help students learn to be confident about themselves. They help students succeed in school, graduate, and go on to college, trades or a good job. Mentors are there to help students make tough decisions and avoid drugs, gangs and teenage pregnancy.
“You’re helping a student get his degree, through thick and thin. They go to college, against all odds. Then they graduate and come back and tell you that maybe it wouldn’t have been if you weren’t in my life, ”Witkowicki said.
It all started in 1996, at Flowery Elementary School where Wikowicki supervised the Libros project. It was a reading program funded by a grant from the California Department of Education that Witkowicki had helped write.
At the time, a number of Flowery families were living in poverty, struggling with language barriers and living in a new country. Many of these students were behind in their reading skills. The Libros project used mentors to coach students in reading.
The school was packed, so they converted a janitor closet to make space for the program. Witkowicki had to stand at the door supervising the mentors as there was no room in the closet for more than a table, a shelf, the mentor, and the student. Witkowicki soon realized that reading aid was only a small part of the support these students needed. In 1999, she decided it was time to develop the program into something that would meet those needs.
“I changed it completely and it wasn’t about reading anymore,” Witkowicki said. “It was about life.”
Witkowicki called the new program Stand By Me and created a nonprofit called the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance. Later, the name Stand By Me was dropped in the name of their nonprofit status, but it embodied the soul of the program.
“We say mentors don’t stand behind and push the student, they don’t stand in front and pull him, they stand by their side as a friend, companion and guide,” said Gallo.
The program was so successful that other schools also wanted mentors on campus. Today, every public school in Sonoma Valley has a mentoring center with a facilitator who oversees the correspondence between students and mentors. They act as the liaison between the mentor, the parents and the teacher.
“This is the person who makes sure the relationship works. If that doesn’t work, we step in to help it work, ”Witkowicki said.
They offer counselors, therapists and social workers who can step in if additional support is needed. “We really want the relationship to last,” said Witkowicki. “It is the length and strength of the match that leads to the greatest positive outcome for the child.”
Witkowicki said relationships often continue well beyond high school. She is still in contact with a student she mentored for years and who is now in her twenties. She said her new mentee is 11 and that she also hopes to maintain a lasting relationship with her.
“We are proud now of the fact that we have become a national model,” said Witkowicki. “Literally, I’m coming back to Washington, DC to host workshops at the National Mentoring Summit, explaining how our program is different from other mentoring programs, because our program matches go on for so long.