Thursday, February 20, 2014

Mentor PR Offers Lessons

Although we are not promoting one mentoring program or mentor over another, this newspaper article illustrates many aspects of strong mentoring:   
  • Qualities and traits of a mentor, albeit an extraordinary one
  • Anecdotal results 
  • Impact of one program and one mentor 
  • Power of PR, i.e., telling a story, to recruit new mentors and funders 
  • Initiative to turn an honor into extra publicity for the mentoring program

Claremore School volunteer named Mentor of the Year    Nonprofit group seeks more people to help kids    

Claremore High School student Devon Brown (left) talks with mentor Agustin Ramirez while other students and mentors meet Wednesday in a commons area of the school. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World

Posted: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 12:00 am /Updated: 9:35 am, Tue Feb 18, 2014.
By GINNIE GRAHAM World Staff Writer  

CLAREMORE - It wasn't even two years ago that Ernesto Murillo-Solis arrived at Claremore High School unable to speak English.

The high school junior had academic promise but no access to the English-language learning programs he needed. 

Then he was paired with Agustin "Gus" Ramirez through the Volunteers for Youth program in Rogers County.   

It has been transformational.    

"This is how I get everything," Murillo-Solis said. "(Ramirez) knows Spanish, so that helps. I want to learn everything as much as I can."                

Ramirez has become a mega-volunteer, creating a language curriculum to teach five Spanish-speaking students and serving as a mentor to six other students.       

He travels to three towns in Rogers County weekly to meet with the youths.        

"I retired and have all the time in the world," he said. "The real heroes are the mentors who work 40-to 50 hours a week and still give an hour for a kid. They are the ones in the trenches."

Ramirez's humility along with his enthusiasm, energy, dependability and dedication was what led the nonprofit organization to honor him as its Mentor of the Year.                                                   
Ramirez said the award belongs to the students.

"As mentors, we are here to complement the parents," he said. "Every kid has worth. As a mentor, you try to cultivate that and give them an opportunity to become a successful person."

Filling a need       

Ramirez, 67, is a Vietnam War veteran who grew up in El Paso, Texas, the son of a janitor and a stay-at-home mother.     

"My father was the smartest janitor I ever knew," he said. "My dad was humble and intelligent." After the military, Ramirez worked in marketing and communications management for different companies often using his dual-language skills.

Rogers County does not have the large Spanish-speaking population of some Tulsa neighborhoods or some rural towns with large numbers of migrant workers. But it is enough to create a need for children of immigrants struggling to learn English.

After Ramirez started mentoring with Volunteers for Youth, he saw this gap and created the program. He has a folder for each of his Spanish-speaking students to track unfamiliar phrases and to review lessons. It has an Aztec calendar on the front with the title "From My World to Our World."      

"That is on purpose to make them feel inclusion," Ramirez said. "It's our world. I'm not isolated. Your new world is here."       

Each night, Murillo-Solis spends about an hour on his English skills in addition to attending school full time, playing athletics and working a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant.   

"I want to go to college and study business," he said. "My accent is the hardest thing for me right now." Ramirez cannot brag enough on his students.

"I don't have to talk work ethic to these guys," he said. "I tell them to never view their inability to master the language as a crutch but as an opportunity. People who speak two languages can communicate with twice as many people."

Building relationships       

Volunteers for Youth started in 1999 in Rogers County with a one-on-one mentoring program. During the last school year, 287 students were matched, and a waiting list of between seven and 10 is ongoing.

The nonprofit organization added the after-school program for middle school students called BLAST in 2006, a second-chance program for first-time juvenile offenders in 2008, and an academy for students on long-term suspension last year.    

In total, 574 youths were served through the programs.

"We tell mentors that relationship-building is first," said Mendy Stone, the executive director. "It is about teaching life lessons they may not be getting. Once they establish that, everything else will fall into place."

Mentors meet students at the school once a week for an hour during the school year just to talk. Some may walk around campus, shoot basketballs in the gym, or meet in the cafeteria or commons area. The largest need for mentors is at the middle school level.    
"They are at a tender age," said Bill Adams, assistant principal of Claremore Will Rogers Junior School.       

Some students need consistent people in their lives who are not authority figures such as parents, teachers and administrators.   

"This gives me another inroad to the family and opens up an avenue for conversation," Adams said. "We need the mentors. We need outstanding people in the community to step up. Anytime we can get mentors into our school, they are welcome."

Ret. 2-19-14

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