“Patience is a fabulously happy kid,” Colleen Fedor says. “A great girl. Very good student. Didn’t miss a single day of middle school.”
Those might be the words of a proud parent speaking about her child but not in this case. Fedor, the executive director of the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern Pennsylvania, is talking about a young girl who happens to be her mentee.
Matched six years ago by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh when Patience was in sixth grade, the pair have been together ever since. At first, Fedor and Patience met weekly for an hour or so, just talking, exploring their relationship, discussing careers. Over the years, their relationship grew to include outdoor walks, eating ice balls, working on Patience’s high school application. “Patience has a love of science,” Fedor says, “but she also has concerns about college. So our next job is to go for some visits. Robert Morris. Duquesne.
“What I really do,” she adds, “is show Patience the individual attention we all need. Sometimes mentoring isn’t any more profound than that.”
That may be so, but the numbers are. Born in 1995, the Mentoring Partnership provides resources and best practices to some 150 area mentoring programs. Training 1,200 potential mentors annually, the Partnership effectively reaches some 27,000 kids.
“We want kids to be successful,” Fedor says. “We want quality kids to be at the center of each relationship. To do that, we help adults find what they have to give. Then we help them find kids who want to learn it.”
The Mentoring Partnership is celebrating 20 years of helping to make kids successful at the Magic of Mentoring gala on October 14th at Heinz Field. Getting special recognition this year are the many community leaders—Chip Burke and Dan Rooney, to name two—who have helped create and support the Mentoring Partnership. Also being honored? The long-term director, Fedor, who is tireless and passionate and cheerful in her leadership.
Damon Bethea, United Way mentoring projects director and a middle-school mentor, knows well the magic of mentoring. “Mentors share stories, help motivate students, and be a champion for kids who may not have many champions in their lives,” he says.
The champions start early. “At age nine,” Strong Women, Strong Girls Executive Director Sabrina Saunders says, “a girl’s self-esteem peaks. Our goal is to keep that and ambition high.”
Working out of a modest Sarah Street rowhouse, Saunders points out that changes in pre-adolescence can cause a girl’s self-esteem to plummet. Quickly, almost blindingly, girls can drop-out, become pregnant and fall prey to substance abuse. “If we can get ahead of the curve,” she says, “we can ensure that girls can stay on the path to their own success.”
Success is something that Strong Women, Strong Girls knows quite a bit about. Currently supervising some 50 professional mentors who help train 220 undergraduate college mentors who in turn mentor more than 600 third- through fifth-grade girls. Having partnerships with six area colleges on the one hand, and public and charter schools and community centers on the other; recruiting through parents, counselors, teachers, principals, and the girls themselves, SWSG targets girls who’ve been bullied, are abnormally shy, exhibit academic trouble, and so on.
Matched with college volunteers, the girls work a gender-based curriculum designed to raise self-esteem, build leadership, think critically and create community. Focusing on such role models as Michelle Obama, Jane Seymour (who founded the Open Hearts Foundation) and Benazir Bhutto, they study biographies, engage in character activities and create events.
“We recognize that girls are strong and ambitious,” Saunders says. “We also recognize that the world is not fair. So girls need to be given ample opportunity to excel. We want to encourage them.”
Encouraging other women is something that Joy Manufacturing’s Lindsay Farrell has been doing since she was an undergraduate. A graduate industrial engineer in inventory control and IT, she is a successful woman working in a male-dominated industry. “My experience has made me want to mentor young women,” she says. “Letting them know some of the challenges they face—and how to overcome them.”
Mentoring college women for Strong Women, Strong Girls, she’s helped undergraduates with real-world challenges such as fundraising events, career goals, resume writing and interviewing techniques, and non-verbal communication. “When a woman is young and coming into an organization, she doesn’t always recognize the pitfalls that can hurt her in the workplace. Or how to handle being the only woman in the room with 20 men. When my mentees tell me about situations like that, I always try to offer the right support. What I find rewarding is seeing the kind of growth that helps them achieve what they’re out to do—like the student who got a Fulbright scholarship to study wind energy in Europe.”
One of the rewards for Ashley Schmider, the current Miss Pennsylvania and a former Duquesne mentor for Strong Women, Strong Girls, was “getting to understand the struggles going on in my community that I would not otherwise have realized.”
Mentoring for Strong Women, Strong Girls at Roosevelt Elementary, Hill House and others, Schmider began, she says, “without any idea of what to expect. Coming from the suburbs and discovering inner-city schools, I saw how important this program is for those girls who were lacking constant role models in their lives. As mentors, we were there for them every week, women on whom they could rely, in whom they could confide, from whom they could learn such life skills as leadership, self-esteem and healthy living. What it means to be a strong woman, and how they can use that strength in their lives now and when they become older.”
One role model: Coco Chanel, the fashion diva who made women’s pantsuits part of the landscape. “We had the girls design their own clothes,” Schmider says, “then make and model them. That was a fun lesson. It was so rewarding to see what they did. That’s why, six years later, I’m still involved.”
For Pitt senior Taylor Wantz, the rewards of mentoring are similarly startling. “I leave my mentoring sessions,” she says, “and think about the things in my own life. I’m from Hollidaysburg. I had a lot of privileges that I never realized others didn’t—until I got involved in Strong Women, Strong Girls. I not only realized how fortunate I am, but also saw the situations that these girls are in. All that confirms how much I want to help children after I graduate law school.”
“The girls tell us about their peaks and valleys,” she adds. “One peak, something good that happened one week, made me realize why I’m here. One girl said that she got to talk to her dad on the phone. That was her peak. That made her week.” Wantz shakes her head. “That was so shocking.”
Mentoring in groups of three or four college students and five-to-20 elementary school girls, they meet weekly at Homestead Propel, Hazelwood YMCA and other locations. For 90 to 120 minutes there are notebooks, stories, drawings, “things they’re passionate about,” Wantz says, “things that will make them successful.
“In Hazelwood,” she continues, “one of our girls talked about her family, about the things that were absent in her life. Her family moved a lot, and she switched schools, went to after-school programs, didn’t eat dinner until eight or nine o’clock. Our weekly visits were the constant in her life. It’s that way for a lot of these girls—everything’s changing, but this is something constant.”
“My own mentors inspired me,” she says. “I hope I’m doing the same for these girls.”
So does Emily Stehura. With a doctorate in industrial organization psychology, she works as a global consultant with Development Dimensions International. “As you ascend the corporate ladder,” she says, “there’s fewer and fewer women in executive and leadership roles. Seeing that, I felt that it was important for girls to learn that they can be strong—and should be developing qualities that will help them through their careers.”
Now a Strong Women, Strong Girls Professional Strong Leader, she came on board three years ago because, she says, “I had some really helpful people in grad school and at DDI who mentored me. I wanted to give back some things I’ve learned over the years.”
SWSG was a good fit, she says, because “I can help young women in college get ready for their professional lives. It’s also a unique opportunity to understand the millennials, in terms of hiring and developing them.”
Currently working with a Pitt pre-med student, Stehura and her mentee meet at Starbucks, Forbes and Meyran. Beginning with a bit of a chat about what’s going on, the conversation turns more serious, the collegian discussing her concerns about doing research (difficult), her workload (killer), getting into med school (the mountain she has to climb.) “She’s motivated,” Stehura says, “smart, type A. I don’t know how much I help her in knowledge, but in perspective towards the bigger picture—this is what you want to do or what you have to do. I ask her: are you looking for opportunities because they’re on a To-Do list or because you’re passionate about them?”
Passion fuels Be a Middle School Mentor, the largest mentoring initiative in the region’s history, a partnership between Pittsburgh Public Schools, the Mentoring Partnership and the United Way. This year, it will reach 18 Pittsburgh Public Schools and hopes to provide some 500 middle school students with mentors.
Connecting adults with middle school students, grades six through eight, mentors commit one hour weekly to do planned activities, help set career goals, and encourage positive changes in attendance, grades and overall performance.
One of these is Damon Bethea, the previously mentioned United Way mentoring projects director. “Most transitions into middle school are difficult,” he says. “So this support and guidance have been really significant for many kids.”
Significant enough to engender a nearly 10 percent higher attendance rate, two-thirds of mentored students also had improved math and reading scores.
“My own experience,” Bethea says, “is that the young man I’ve been mentoring on the North Side is more engaged. I come Thursdays at lunch to talk with him about how he’s doing. Being there, being consistent, helping him make better choices in school, life and education—that’s made a great difference.”
Ask anyone at Big Brothers Big Sisters Pittsburgh, the granddaddy of all the mentoring groups which has been matching mentors in this area for the last 50 years. This year alone they will serve more than 1450 children.
Back on Centre Avenue Colleen Fedor excuses herself. It’s a late Tuesday afternoon, and, as things turn out, both she and Patience like hockey. Magically, Fedor’s scored two tickets to see the Pens put what will shortly be a serious pre-season hurt on the ‘Canes at Consol.
“Mentoring is a commitment,” she says. “A commitment to a child. And we don’t let children down.”
“With Patience,” Fedor adds, “I don’t have to be the mother. I don’t have to be the rule maker. I just have to be her friend, a caring person who wants her to be successful.”
Fedor points at the photo of Patience. “I take what I love to do. I share it with someone else. It’s that simple.”
Interested in mentoring? Check it out here.
And see what Colleen Fedor is up to this week in our NEXT Up feature.