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By Cindy Krischer Goodman
When Jenna Kochen leaves her law firm at night, she heads to the basketball court — but not to play ball. For the last six years, Kochen has mentored high school students as the assistant coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team at Miami Country Day.
“I love seeing the student athletes mature both on and off the court,” said Kochen, who played basketball with current head coach Ochiel Swaby when she was a student at Miami Country Day. Outside of team practices and during offseason, Kochen, an associate at Allen Norton & Blue, works with several of the girls on homework, gives them advice about careers and motivates them to apply to colleges. “It is an incredible experience to be a mentor to these young women. It is quite rewarding to be able to be there to support them in school, basketball and life.”
Leaders from President Barack Obama to Gov. Rick Scott are hailing youth mentorship programs, saying mentoring is an imperative for combating risk factors such as abusive family situations and the lure of drugs or gangs. According to Firewall Centers, a local nonprofit that provides low-income students with mentoring, there are more than 50,000 kids in South Florida who could be at risk. A number of studies have revealed a correlation between a young person’s involvement in a quality mentoring relationship and positive outcomes in the areas of school, mental health, problem behavior and health.
In South Florida, busy executives like Kochen recognize the importance and make time to mentor high school students and at-risk teens, despite business travel, work and family demands. At least once a month, Peggy Fucci, president and CEO of OneWorld Properties, works as a volunteer mentor with Miami Bridge Youth & Family Services lending support to teens from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Everyone needs to have someone in their lives who they are able to talk to openly about things that may be bothering them, or things they want to learn,” Fucci said. About once a month, Fucci takes about a dozen teens to locations such as The Miami Herald, The Biltmore Hotel and the Pérez Art Museum Miami to show them interesting workplaces and career options. “I want them to see there are jobs that cater to their interests,” Fucci said. As part of the outing, the teens will eat in a restaurant, learning how to order off a menu and use dining etiquette. “Sometimes, they have never been to a restauran,t and I want to show them things to look forward to,” said Fucci, who credits mentors for her success as a young CEO.
Organizations like Big Brothers, Big Sisters and 100 Black Men of South Florida encourage and train local professionals willing to volunteer their time to provide mentoring to young people who are facing hardship.
Some South Florida companies have launched programs, encouraging employees to become youth mentors as a way to give back to the community. Carnival Foundation launched an in-the-workplace mentoring program for high school students in 2007 and has encouraged participation within its corporate offices.
Currently, 95 Carnival management team members serve as mentors to 95 Miami-Dade County high school students. During the school year, participants visit Carnival headquarters for four hours monthly to shadow their Carnival mentor and observe them in an office environment.
Community and business leaders are touting youth mentoring not only as a solution for at-risk youth, but also to encourage young women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Angelica Gomez, Vice President of Information Technology for Regis HR Group in Miami, has signed up through mentoring.net to virtually mentor a female college student pursuing a computer science degree. “I would have loved to have had a mentor in college,” she said. “Sometimes, you need someone to give you that extra push or guidance.”
Miami web developer Amy Renshaw works hands once a week as a volunteer instructor/advisor for high school girls, teaching them coding, but also guiding them to pursue college degrees, summer internships and careers in technology.
Renshaw said she considers this type of mentoring to be extremely rewarding: “I’m opening windows of opportunity they might not have known about or pursued.”