Mentors Leave Their Mark on Communities

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Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series examining the work of volunteers of the Stiles Hall mentoring program.

They came from different towns and for different reasons. Their childhood experiences were as different as the colors of their skin. But they met at Stiles Hall with a common goal.

UC Berkeley junior Zechariah Whittington and senior Andy Krikorian have committed countless hours during their college years to mentoring and tutoring youths. Each has developed lasting relationships with their respective school communities.

Established in 1884, Stiles Hall is a private, nonprofit agency dedicated to serving the community, using the UC Berkeley student population as its volunteer base.

"There is a lot of need in the community, both social and academic," says Stiles Hall Director David Stark.

As local schools continue to suffer from budget cuts, Krikorian says the students suffer.

"The best way to get these kids to college is to introduce them to what college is all about, both Andy's and Zech's programs do just that," Stark says.

The agency focuses on fostering long-term mentoring relationships between mentors and low-income and inner-city youths.

Mentors regularly communicate with parents and teachers, keeping themselves updated on the students' curriculum.

"The Stiles Hall program has been wonderful," says Maxier Matthews, student safety officer at Longfellow Middle School. "It has been one of the best things to happen to us. It's been around for a long time affecting so many kids."

The agency also seeks to promote lasting interracial relationships among the mentors, who are considered the future community leaders.

Each coordinator recruits and supervises volunteers for one of the 12 different mentoring programs that span Berkeley and Oakland.

Every Monday and Tuesday for Krikorian is another day spent with the kids at Le Conte Elementary School in Berkeley. Strolling down the school's hallways, Krikorian towers over a diverse pack of third-graders shuffling by his side. Krikorian is now a familiar face after spending the last three years as a tutor and coordinator of the Stiles Hall after-school tutoring program-three years that exposed him to an environment drastically different from his own.

Photo/Peter J. Goetz
Zechariah Whittington battles with his mentee in a game of one-on-one basketball at Longfellow Middle School.

Krikorian says he was quick to learn about the challenges that face underprivileged children in the area. He was matched up with a nine-year-old orphan boy whose father was shot and killed and whose mother had died from cancer.

Krikorian says he realized that these grim circumstances reflected a stark contrast to his own childhood. He grew up in Manhattan Beach, an affluent beach community of Los Angeles. Both of his parents were active in the community and in his life. His mother was a teacher's aide at his elementary school and his father played a substantial role in his life, coaching most of his athletic teams.

Because of Krikorian's drastically different background, he says his mentee's situation had a serious impact on him. Krikorian discovered children's dire need for attention and has been dedicated to providing them with emotional and academic guidance.

While Krikorian was witnessing for the first time the challenges that inner-city youth experience, Whittington spent the same three years reliving his childhood through the lives of the children at Berkeley's Longfellow Middle School.

"Growing up, I would've loved to have someone to tell them, 'Look, this is how I feel. I feel hella mad. I can't concentrate,'" Whittington says. "I think it is a beautiful thing how people step it up and step into other people's roles."

Whittington recalls growing up in the inner city of Houston, Texas. From the age of 11 to 15, he grew up in the Fifth Ward, what he calls "the ghetto of the ghetto." Fatherless for 15 years, he and his two younger brothers were raised by his mother.

"The kids I grew up with went through their own trials and tribulations, coming and going from prison," Whittington says.

Whittington would take four different city buses to attend the school he desired. The neighborhood school was tainted with high crime rates and bad teachers. He says that kids would often get beat up, kidnapped and arrested.

Whittington says it was tough to be a kid in his neighborhood.

"I was hip to a lot of things way before my time," he says. "You are too young to understand exactly what types of drugs are affecting the people around you. But you are conscious that something's just not right."

The parents of some of the children needing guidance use drugs or simply do not have the education to help their children, Matthews says.

The students that are motivated regardless of their circumstances amaze her, she says.

"It's something inside their minds that says, 'I'm going to make it,'" Matthews says. "It's a drive to get out of the system."

Like many of those kids, Whittington says the majority of his childhood neighbors were never provided the resources to make it to college.

But for Krikorian, not entering college was considered taboo in his upper-middle-class neighborhood. The college-preparatory focus started as early as the middle school years.

Despite their varied backgrounds and the different compositions of their programs, both Whittington and Krikorian are known to leave their mentees wishing they would stay longer.

"He's a real real real good friend," says fourth-grader Dariam Woolridge. "He helps us with stuff. You can depend on him."

Both Whittington's and Krikorian's volunteers reflect their varying social circles in college as well as personal experiences. While Krikorian's volunteers are largely white students from the Greek community, Whittington's volunteers are mostly black and Latino students from UC Berkeley's track team.

Both mentors and mentees say their diverse cultural backgrounds do not pose a barrier in their relationships.

"It's not like us and them," says UC Berkeley junior and tutor Nick Sloman. "They have a better outlook. I think it would be harder at the middle-school level."

Whittington, having lived much of his life without a father, says he realizes the value of male role models in the lives of his middle-school students.

Krikorian and Whittington encourage their volunteers to expose the students to college life because they say it is important for children to spend time outside of their schools and see UC Berkeley as a realistic goal.

"The program helps the kids to see there is another side," Matthews says. "If they had waited for a family member to take them (to UC Berkeley events), many would never have made it."

The demand of mentors at the Stiles Hall programs continually remain high. Unless Whittington recruits more volunteers for his program, he says he is likely to deny many children mentors for next year.

"It hurts me to have to tell them that they won't be able to have mentors next year," he says.


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