“Do you remember you before you were you?” So begins a video by the National Mentoring Partnership, urging viewers to recall the time before they made life’s critical choices. “Remember the people who helped, all the people who believed in you before you believed in yourself. What if they hadn’t?”
Answering such a call to invest in future generations is the grandparent of North Bay mentoring organizations, the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance. The mission of this 22-year-old nonprofit is simple and clear: to create and supervise long-term relationships between caring adults and at-risk school children in need of academic and social support. A cohort of energetic, committed volunteers and 11 staff members maintain mentoring centers on eight campuses of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District. Currently, there are 450 active mentor-mentee pairs, with 102 children on a waiting list that the Mentoring Alliance board is determined to decrease.
“The mentoring relationship is the nectar of our days,” says Executive Director Lee Morgan Brown. “We’re all busy, but taking that one hour a week to be with a child throughout their K-12 education forms a bond that makes the mentor centers sacred ground. Several of our volunteers have been in close touch with their mentees for 20 years.”
Referrals come from teachers, principals, school counselors, families (sometimes requesting for younger siblings of current mentees), and even the older students themselves. Many of the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance on-site facilitators have mentees of their own as well as being “role models for the role models.”
Annette Giroux-Smith, the facilitator at El Verano School, puts it this way. “We provide a sanctuary for matches to meet, feel welcome and safe. We’re advocates for children and guides for adults. From a psychological standpoint, the evolution of a mentor-mentee relationship is fascinating. The ups and downs, the biological ebb and flow transforms the relationship into a life form in and of itself. I have thoroughly enjoyed having my mentee and her family in my life and the lives of my children. Sometimes we cry for setbacks and disappointments. But if you ask me what I get out of this, I say ‘Everything.’”
The Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance’s logo is familiar to those driving west toward Santa Rosa on Highway 12. At Depot Road near Flowery School, a series of 90 different billboards have, over the years, served to celebrate the program and help recruit mentors. Ads also appear on screen before movies at Sonoma 9 Cinema. According to Morgan Brown, “Our relationship to the business community in the valley goes beyond advertising and seeking donations, however. We encourage business managers and owners to offer their employees paid time off for the hour they spend each week with their mentees during the school day. Most enlightened corporations make community service and volunteering part of their culture.”
Additionally, the Mentoring Alliance’s “Roadmap to Your Future” brings mentor pairs to meet with employers and employees who share how they became interested in their fields, explain what skills are needed for their jobs and how they are promoted from one level to the next. Mentees report that these experiences expand the scope of their career options, put more value on education and helps them set goals for the future. Roadmap also connects teens to job and internship opportunities. Tours have included both Sonoma Valley businesses and locations in the greater Bay Area. Among the hundreds of excursions are visits to Google, Facebook, AT&T Park, Crucible Industrial Design School and Levi Stadium.
Morgan Brown reports that 93 percent of their mentees went on to college in 2017, and 97 percent in 2018. “Local decision makers know that the first generation high school and college graduates, and all youth who have matured through years in our program, are the future of our towns. They will live here and be very empathetic leaders.”
It was a billboard that inspired Deborah Dalton, executive director of Mentor Me, along with other “uber PTA moms” to volunteer for the mentoring program that began at Petaluma’s McNear school in 2000. “We learned from teachers and counselors that mentored kids were doing better academically and forming better social relationships. Behavior problems and truancy had gone down. Mentor centers were set up on more campuses complete with athletic equipment, games, art supplies, snacks and beverages…and off they went!”
At first, the original group was operating under the auspices of Healthy Community Consortium, and a memorandum of understanding with them and the school district, but then the Mentor Me cadre established their own 501c3. Dalton says, “The story of mentoring is a love story. Not only because of the relationship that forms between two strangers—a child in need and one adult who comes wanting to help a child in need—but the story is also one of a bunch of volunteers, friends who got together to serve kids and to find our own purpose and belonging in life.”
Mentor Me has 13 staff members, expanded from three mentorships with no budget operating out of a living room to a 12,000-square-foot recreation center. It has 29 school partners, with 500 kids in the regular program (45 of these in comprehensive case management), and formal contracts with the Petaluma Police Department and the Sonoma County Probation Department. Besides one-on-one and group mentoring, the mission of Mentor Me includes a Mentor Me Advocacy Team and Restorative Mentoring that serves the area’s most vulnerable teens.
Like many nonprofit organizations, Mentor Me has become sophisticated in reporting, data collection and metrics. Dalton describes an exciting new development born out of their ability to capture information: “In partnership with the Petaluma City School District and Sonoma State University, we are conducting a 10-year longitudinal study on the effect of mentoring on at-risk youth. We’re using eight data points, including grades, attendance, number of discipline referrals. We’re looking at one year prior to match and every year thereafter to see how these kids in mentorship do over time.”
Dalton says one thing they’ve already documented is that youth who were mentored for two years or more, or are currently mentored and then enter the juvenile justice system, behave differently than those who were not mentored. “The mentored kids understand how to identify resources, understand that sometimes, you just have to trust a random adult who shows up in your life and says, ‘I want to help you.’ They have learned that trusting that person could make a difference in the outcome. They’re completing their probation successfully, most without incident, and they’re allowing us to help them in other aspects of their lives, such as grades, and relationships with their parents. Or, in some cases, how to let go of gang culture.”
In 2015, with assistance and training from Mentor Me, volunteers and sisters-in-law Michele Huff and Tammy Pedersen introduced the mentoring program at Hamilton K-8 School in Novato. They began with 20 mentors and now have approximately 100 active mentorships (of which about 30 percent are male) and 57 students on the waiting list. Steven Hospodar, who has been at Hamilton for 13 years, seven years as principal, says that when he started, the school was small but the need was big.
“There wasn’t even a Safeway here then, so these families were hungry,” Hospodar says. “We had mostly at-risk students with about 70 percent qualifying for free or reduced price lunch. The social and emotional wellness of the school was disrupted, so we figured out how to layer on different programs to help. We brought in the San Francisco Food Bank to get groceries into every home. We started an open clothes closet to ensure every child could come to school without shame. Then we figured out how to individualize this to make sure everyone could settle down and participate in their own education.”
Hospodar continues, “Prior to our mentoring program, kids would be in my office, at any break, before school, after school, my office was a zoo! It was not just kids in trouble, but kids who wanted to know that someone cared about them. I ate lunch with many kids. It’s interesting that there’s no one in my office for lunch now. It kind of saddens me, but that’s okay. It tells the story, right? It tells us that the kids here feel supported and loved.”
The mentoring program added additional opportunities that calmed the atmosphere at Hamilton. “Child Protective Services and the police would come to campus daily,” Hospodar recalls. “The new building we developed even had a police and CPS annex in it. We use it for storage now.”
After several years of mentoring, Hamilton became a gold ribbon school, the only elementary in the Novato district to get a gold ribbon. Staff recently secured a mentor space at Novato High to extend the program beyond the middle school years. Huff says, “We want our mentors to be able to walk their mentees from Hamilton School through high school and into college or career. When you’re younger, the connection with your parents is built on fun and shared experiences so that when you get to the challenges of high school, there is trust and buy-in to the relationship. That’s how a mentor can help pave the way to college and/or career.”
Hamilton’s principal concurs. “Here’s what we are trying to create: what do Steve Hospodar’s own kids have that makes them so successful compared to what these kids have, and how do we get the same to them? That’s our vision and our work.”
Forget Me Not Farm is located just behind where a hard-to-miss, metal dog sculpture stands sentinel on the road that leads to the Humane Society of Sonoma County. Since it was founded in 1992 by Carol Rathmann, who has a master’s degree in psychology and more than 35 years of experience in humane education and animal welfare, Forget Me Not Farm has helped thousands of at-risk children break the cycle of abuse and neglect. The youth mentoring program here began with a federal grant in 2008 to serve foster children and those who were involved in the farm’s therapeutic program. In 2016, it opened up to more at-risk youth who were in group homes and other institutional living situations, and were about to age out of the foster care system. About 40 youths, aged 14 to 21, go through youth mentoring each year, and currently there is a short waiting list. Referrals come from more than a dozen agencies, social workers, law enforcement, high school counselors and word of mouth.
“What’s unique about our mentoring, is it’s a work readiness program,” says Rathmann. “We’re trying to teach these kids basic soft skills to get a job. When they arrive, they put on their farm t-shirts and name tags. We then look at simple successes like, do they show up on time, complete the assignments at their station, have eye contact with the people they’re working with? Do they work with their partner in a professional manner? Statistics for foster youth are grim in terms of homelessness, imprisonment, teen pregnancy and unemployment. Our mentoring program was born out of getting them successfully out of high school and into a job or, perhaps, further education.”
Forget Me Not Farm mentors apply and are screened and trained in much the same way as school-based mentors, but they must also understand the heart of the program, which is to model behaviors of compassion and caring through facilitation of the human-animal relationship. Nathan Rathmann, director of operations for the farm and Carol’s 39-year-old son explains it like this, “There is a kind of inherent love and nurturing that can be expressed and modeled from a person to an animal that doesn’t make the youths feel vulnerable. It’s open and easy and they don’t feel threatened. It might seem like we’re learning about dog safety or good horsemanship, but a lot of those behaviors are what’s important for humans to have towards each other, behaviors that weren’t modeled for kids in violent homes. The mentors we’re looking for are good, stable, balanced people who like animals and who like kids.”
The Rathmanns emphasize that during 10 or 12 hours of training before mentors are matched with a child, they’re cautioned to have realistic expectations. New mentors learn what it’s like to relate with individuals who have histories of abuse and neglect, or who have interrupted development from trauma. They are trained in strategies to handle behaviors they might see.
“But we don’t want mentors to have preconceived notions. We want them to have authentic interactions,” Nathan says. “The volunteers get no specifics on the kids because generally we don’t have a lot of specifics. We want them to act the same as they would with any young person because the normalizing piece is an important part of the mentoring relationship.” Says Carol, “For business people who want to help, what is so attractive about referring kids here is that they know we care deeply about and teach our students well. Work is available at every level on the farm, and the same extends to the entire animal care and control world. There are a variety of jobs ranging from cleaning kennels to working in a pet store to veterinary medicine and everything in between. Research shows that no matter how bad the economy is, people continue to spend money on their pets. It’s a durable industry we’re preparing them for. I don’t think these jobs are going to be outsourced to a robot.”
Ely Hernandez, who was mentored for 15 years through the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, is now a mentor herself. Although she had hard-working, loving parents, Hernandez learned how valuable it was to have a special adult friend for whom she was a top priority. Like many adults who were helped through their growing up by men and women who cared, she felt moved to “pay it forward” by passing on the good she received as a fourth grader to another child.
“I was nine when I asked Libby to be my mentor,” Hernandez says. “Now I’m 24 and we still meet almost once a week. She is a friend and a wonderful woman I love and care for as a second mom. Libby has been nothing but caring, supportive, loving, inspiring and my biggest fan. She’s so proud of me! The thought of becoming a mentor sparked when I graduated high school, but I thought it would be important to finish college and settle down. Then, I met Tristan through my previous job as program assistant at the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley. Tristan is a special boy. Once I met him, I knew I wanted to be his mentor. A quote I like to live by is, ‘Be the person you needed when you were younger.’ I needed Libby and I had her. I wanted to be the same for someone else and I hope I’m doing that for Tristan.”
Mario came to the Youth Mentoring program at Forget Me Not Farm because of the trauma he experienced in the Wine Country fire of October 2017. His family lost their home and their dog. Mario is blind. Children with physical limitations are considered at-risk even if not neglected or abused and benefit greatly from having a mentor. Mario describes his experience there:
“I’m 15 and I go to a private school called Quest Forward Academy. It was about a year ago I came to the farm. I was not in a good place. I had a dog that died in the fire. She was my joy.
The coolest thing about being here is no worries. It’s just you and the animals. I get their feed, pet them. Buddy the horse has a very soft nose. My favorite is Raymond, the cow. You have to avoid letting him lick you. I listen to him eat; he’s hilarious. I water the pigs and listen to them pace. Being with the animals is very relaxing. It’s like I’m at peace with myself.
My mentor’s name is Coni. She’s funny and she likes to have deep, meaningful conversations about anything and everything—from dog medicine to the stars. She has been my mobility instructor helping me get around with my cane. We go through everyday stuff like going to the store, crossing streets, bus travel. You usually have to be 16 to have a guide dog, and you have to have your mobility skills down well.
I truly hope to have a pet again. It might be a big responsibility to have a dog that works with you because you have to be strict, and I don’t know if I can be. I’m not much with discipline. I’m chill.
For me and Coni, working together deepened our relationship; it used to be like teacher and student and now we are working partners. It’s great to have someone to rely on. It will definitely help me later in life. Knowing how to treat a partner is an important life skill.”
Coni Ahrendt has been Mario’s mentor at Forget Me Not Farm for about a year, but they had a previous relationship through the Sonoma County Office of Education where she was his orientation and mobility specialist for many years.
Mentoring programs in the North Bay all have a similar application process. Here’s how the process works. First, use an online link to obtain and complete an application. Second, provide three references. Third, complete LIVESCAN (fingerprint-based background check). Fourth, attend the organization’s mentor training program. And finally, meet with the site coordinator with any further questions and to be matched with your student. Programs provide ongoing mentor education with roundtables, speakers and opportunities for mentors to exchange ideas with their cohorts.
Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance
The above programs ask for a commitment of one hour per week.
Forget Me Not Farm
Youth Mentoring contact: Beth Karzes at Bkarzes@sonomahumane.org. Two hours per week helps both homeless and rescued animals and teens that need guidance. Volunteers must be at least 21 years old and willing to make a 6-month commitment.
As the owner of her own home remodeling business, Betsy Zimmerman has a schedule flexible enough to come to Hamilton School at lunchtime to meet with JJ, who is 7. The pair has been together for three years.
“When Michele asked me if I wanted to become a mentor, I was going through a nasty divorce and my middle daughter had just left for college. I was feeling down and depleted and didn’t know what I needed, but it turned out, I needed JJ! We read together, play together, give lots of hugs. My role is to be her bright spot, to support her strengths. My mom died when I was 19 and a family took me in. I realize now that I wouldn’t have become what I became if I didn’t have those people.”
Tina Baldry, program director for Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, has been with that nonprofit for 19 years. She has mentored two sisters. Janeth, now 25, was matched with Tina when she was in fifth grade; Jasmin was matched when she was in kindergarten and is now in sixth grade.
“Mentoring Janeth and Jasmin has enriched my life more than I ever dreamed. From engaging in conversations at the mentor centers, to enjoying field trips and enrichment activities, to traveling to Mexico to celebrate Janeth’s Quinceanera, we have created a bond that will last a lifetime.”
Kim Kabot has been a mentor for two years. “After raising stepsons I wanted to share with a girl. We are well matched and do things together that we both love—art, creative design, and playing with my Australian shepherd, Zoe. Being with Shianne makes me happy and is a highlight of my week. Mentor Me also gives the community an opportunity to get together to do something good. When the fire happened, our center served as a shelter. Petaluma loves itself and does what it needs to take care of itself.” Of her mentor, 13-year-old Shianne says, “She’s a friend I can look up to all the time. I know she’s always going to be there for me.”
Lew Perlson, a former attorney now living in Sonoma, is retired but self-defined as “young at heart.” For five years, he’s been a mentor to high school sophomore Brian, whose family is from El Salvador. Lew says, “Brian was on the waiting list for several years. His mom is terrific but he needed a male influence in his life. Brian and I share a love of sports, and since I am an avid golfer, I’ve got him interested in golf. We go hiking after school, or sometimes just sit at a picnic table in the plaza and talk. I’m shocked sometimes that he will remember things I said years ago. I can see his potential, and I tell him I believe in him and know he can be successful.”
Lew’s wife Bev, is also a mentor. The Perlsons feel that being mentors has given them “much more appreciation of the Latino population, and made us much more sensitive to what is going on in that community, much more aware of what their concerns are, especially these days."
Heather Amador mentors Lizeth and Allison. “It is a joy for me to spend time with these young ladies. To me, mentoring is all about encouraging self-discovery and exploration of opportunities, while offering guidance and affirmation. Every student needs her/his own personal cheerleader!”
Heather Amador mentors Lizeth and Allison. “It is a joy for me to spend time with these young ladies. To me, mentoring is all about encouraging self-discovery and exploration of opportunities, while offering guidance and affirmation. Every student needs her/his own personal cheerleader!"
Cows grazing along hillsides and in seaside meadows are a picturesque and familiar sight in Marin and Sonoma counties. Dairy farms have been a local presence for more than 100 years, but thes...