Mentors help at-risk kids find success

Once a month, buses from all over Miami-Dade County take nearly 200 high school students to work in offices of major employers such as State Farm, the University of Miami and Florida Power & Light.

When they get to the office, each youngster spends the day working one-on-one with a mentor. The teens, all of whom have a history of academic or behavior problems, see what it’s like to work in an office, and they collaborate with their mentors on setting goals for their own lives.

The kids and their mentors are participating in Communities Helping Adolescents Mentor Program, or CHAMP, which is run by the nonprofit Communities in Schools of Miami.

“One of our guiding principles,” says Elizabeth Mejia, president of Communities in Schools of Miami, “is to make sure that every student has a relationship with a caring adult.”

She added: “it’s not programs that change lives, it’s relationships.”

That caring adult has come in many forms over the 14-year life of the program, but lately it is professionals at major employers who have come to fill that void. Mejia and other administrators of the program found that they could show students most effectively the value in staying in school and even continuing with their education beyond high school, by being directly in the workplace surrounded by professionals.

“They get very fired up, they start mimicking their mentors. I remember one student started wearing a tie to school. For some our students, their parents might not have a regular day-to-day job where they see them getting up, getting dressed, going to work ... so this is really very empowering” for the students, Mejia said.

All participating students from the same school are generally matched with mentors from the same company, starting their monthly in-work experience with group activities, followed by one-on-one meeting time with their mentors. Contact during the rest of the month is encouraged by the program, as is attendance at the community service and social activities that are occasionally held.

Robin Reiter, former interim president of Beacon Council, Dade’s economic development partnership, has worked with mentorship programs like CHAMP. She says mentorship programs are significant because they give kids “a window into an eye on things that they have not yet experienced. And it opens their own eyes to what is possible.”

Hazel Lorenzo, a senior at Homestead High School, is a returning participant in the program. Though she has wanted to become a pediatrician for some time, she says it was the CHAMP program that pushed her to pursue it. “I always had the desire, but I never really saw myself doing it. By going through this program made me have hope and have faith that I could actually accomplish this goal,” she said. She is applying to the University of Central Florida, her next step in achieving that goal.

CHAMP is one of a few other programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters and Take Stock In Children that work directly with Miami-Dade schools, each with a slightly different focus. It is the exposure to working in an office that sets this program apart, says Reiter.

According to analysis of school records done by CHAMP, 98 percent of all students in the program stay in school compared to the most recent countywide rate of 76 percent. Last year, all but one of the kids went on to some form of higher education.

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