United Way introduces mentor program
St. Louis American2012 Olympic silver medalist Dawn Harper and St. Louis Rams Pro Bowl safety Quintin Mikell visited Soldan International Studies high school as ambassadors of a United Way program called Education Express. The program promotes the importance of education and mentoring in the region.
“Mentors and tutors can help make dreams a reality,” said Cheryl Polk, executive vice president and chief strategy and engagement officer for the United Way of Greater St. Louis.
Education Express is a new initiative established by Polk that recruits volunteers to serve as readers for elementary school children, mentors, tutors or homework helpers for children in after-school programs. According to research conducted by Child Trends, mentored youth have better attendance, a better chance of going on to higher education and better attitudes toward school.
Polk said there’s a reason why United Way chose Soldan to host the event.
“It is one of the local schools that focus on international studies. We are a global society that has grown richer and stronger because of our diversity,” Polk said.
United Way has partnered with the St. Louis American Foundation and St. Louis Cares Mentoring program, an affiliate of the National CARES Mentoring Movement. Johnny Furr Jr., president of St. Louis Cares, was among volunteers acknowledged at the pep rally.
Soldan students, faculty and staff were excited to hear from Harper and Mikell, who shared their personal experiences.
Harper wore her team U.S.A. jacket with two Olympic medals around her neck – a gold from the 2008 Olympics in China and a silver from the 2012 games in London. One of Harper’s mentors is none other than Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
“She was a great influence. She told me ‘I see something special in you and I believe that you can go on and do great things,’” Harper said of Kersee. “To this day, I still call her for anything that I need, whether it’s dealing with track or not, because I believe that she is where I’m trying to get to one day.”
“We know that communities with low graduation and drop-out rates lead to issues with getting a job, poor health, crime and drug use,” said Thomas Cason, principal of Soldan High School. “Obviously, there is a need for great programs such as this.”
He said the high school has been a long-time supporter of United Way and referred to Polk as a special friend of the St. Louis Public Schools. Polk presented Cason with a check to assist with purchasing extra academic materials for tutors and homework helpers at Soldan.
Two Soldan students, sophomore Tiffany Jacobs and senior Da’Vione Johnson, addressed the audience about how they each benefited from mentoring.
During the school year, Jacobs sought math tutoring from volunteers at Union Avenue Christian Church, where church members regularly tutor and mentor students from neighborhood schools. She spoke highly of her tutor, Richard Jones, and his encouraging words.
“Even though sometimes I would have an attitude about something I didn’t know, he would explain to me that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it was,” she said.
She now volunteers as a tutor or mentor for other students.
Education Express, Polk said, will initially focus on public schools especially those that have lost accreditation. United Way hopes to recruit 2,000 Education Express volunteers by 2014.
It is not going to be easy, but our kids deserve better.