Enrichment by Extraordinary Efforts: Mentor St. Louis & St. Louis Internship Program

St. Louis Commerce Magazine
stlcommercemagazine.com

by Jim Baer

"Our greatest natural resource is the minds of our children." - Walt Disney

Save for the graces of some of St. Louis' most influential and successful businesses, the public schools would be ever locked in more of a struggle for survival than exist today.

Two distinctive programs have etched their indelible mark on the community, and St. Louis' children are enriched because of these extraordinary efforts.

Mentor St. Louis offers a mentoring and nurturing environment for some of the neediest pupils from kindergarten through fifth grade, while another cadre of volunteers guides the St. Louis Internship Program (SLIP) for high school sophomore and juniors who have a strong desire to get ahead in the business world.

Often throughout the school year, white collar office workers ascend upon seven different elementary schools to administer before-school mentoring programs. During summer weeks, nearly 150 inner-city students will take advantage of internship programs at the workplace of some of the region's most significant employers.

WHERE DID IT ALL BEGIN?

Ironically, both organizations found their roots in 1995 around the time of the Rodney King trial and ensuing riots in California. Community leaders knew that more had to be done to nurture inner-city youth.

Jerry and Susan Schlichter, members of Central Reformed Congregation in the Central West End began a dialogue with leaders of the Cote Brilliant Presbyterian Church to offer some kind of mentoring program for youngsters at Cote Brilliant Elementary School.

"My wife and I have lived in the city for a very long time. We realized there were some very long-term challenges within our public school system. We realized that showing a little bit of attention could go a very long way," reasons Schlichter, principal of the law firm of Schlichter Bogard & Denton.

"When I was going to law school in New York, I took part in the Police Athletic League and saw the value of working with inner city youngsters," he recalls.

Schlichter called upon his good friend and neighbor Barrett Toan, Chairman of Express Scripts to come aboard. "Our kids went to school together. (Barrett) has a social services background, and I asked for his help."

That challenge was accepted.

Toan urged his fellow workers at the Earth City headquarters to get involved.

"We have found relationships with this program to be meaningful. The involvement of our many employees who take part in Mentoring St. Louis has helped us to grow enormously as individuals," says Toan.

"I've seen involved companies and individuals take a given child all the way through grade school. Some of our volunteers have sponsored college scholarships for the mentees; we have worked to develop playgrounds, donate computers and add facilities like the Sigma-Aldrich Science Lab at Sherman Elementary School," he says.

For Dennis Gelner, vice president and tax controller, Anheuser-Busch Co.'s, mentoring takes on a personal role. "My family struggled financially when I was young. I grew up in South City and went to St. Louis public schools. Despite the financial burdens, my mom and dad were extremely supportive of education. They set high goals and helped me achieve them. I always knew I would go to college because they instilled in me at a very young age how important it was." Today, Gelner sits on the Mentor St. Louis board's finance committee planning annual fundraisers like a golf outing and gala. Anheuser-Busch supports these events, thanks in part to Gelner.

"This is kind of a pay-me-now, or pay-me-later, relationship," states Peter Franzen, executive director Mentor St. Louis. "For many of these children, they will never leave St. Louis or attend college. They will however become the person sitting next to you at Busch Stadium or the individual you will pass along the street."

Franzen says the whole purpose of his program is "the people of metropolitan St. Louis taking responsibility for our inner-city kids."

Today, proudly, Mentor St. Louis covers 750 kids at seven of the 50 elementary schools within the city limits. There's a lot of territory yet undeveloped.

Program mentors are not teachers. They are listeners, guides, readers and pals. Mentor St. Louis stands out as the largest school-based mentoring program in the region and represents the largest group of volunteers for the St. Louis public schools.

A $600,000 grant by the Danforth Foundation in 1996-97 helped boost the program to 550 mentors serving 800 kindergarten and first graders at six elementary schools.

The St. Louis Internship Program has its own story to tell.

A glittered example is SLIP alumnus Roberto Young. The 25-year-old engineer is on a leave-of-absence from Boeing, finishing his MBA at Harvard next spring.

Young, 1998 Sumner High grad had an eye on a football career at Memphis University. However, a change of coaches and a selection as "Black Engineering Student of the Year" guided him off the playing field and into the classroom. Because of security stipulations, (age 18 required), he was an intern at Boeing under the Inroads Program as a collegian, and did his high school SLIP internship with the St. Louis Sports Commission.

"I am proud that I had parents who stressed academics and that I can be a role model to students," says Young, now an active SLIP board member. Others have not been that fortunate.

One of the exemplary leaders for SLIP is co-founder Steven Cousins, a partner at Armstrong Teasdale law firm. Cousins is convinced of SLIPs longevity and success.

"The youth of St. Louis have been given more than an employment opportunity. They, more profoundly, have been granted access to major law firms and other professional and corporate organizations that serve as institutional powerhouses that impact and shape our region. By virtue of this exposure, they (students) will be inserted into an important network of positional people who will and can assist them in pursuing career goals, both in the near and long term," he says. Armstrong-Teasdale has SLIP interns employed on a year-round basis.

The goal for SLIP is to put high school sophomores and juniors into the work place and to extend their summer learning beyond the classroom.

Kelvin Westbrook, president and CEO for Millennium Digital Co. agrees. "I see the internship program as learning beyond the four walls of education. The sooner we expose our kids to opportunities and connect the dots, the better their chance of success. This is all about seeding tomorrow's workforce and the sooner you do that, the sooner you realize a harvest," says Westbrook.

Westbrook, a SLIP board member, who grew up one of 11 children in Tacoma, Wash. relocated to St. Louis ten years ago and became an education and healthcare volunteer.

So too is Lisa Filkens, vice president, principal of human resources for Colliers Turley Martin Tucker. She brags about Steven Taylor from Gateway Institute of Technology who is now looking towards a commercial real estate career. "Our brokers have worked hard with Steven and he really fits in well here. We are planning to bring him back as a full-time employee, once he graduates college," says Filkens.

The SLIP program also had its roots out of the riots in Los Angeles, following the King trial. "Tom Hulverson (Hulverson Law Firm) called me and said let's hire 50 students for our firms. They won't have to worry about uniforms and we will provide role models," says Mark Levison, co-chairman of SLIP and a principal with Lathrop & Gage, L.C. Levison, who was president of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis in 1995 went around the country giving speeches about having access to justice.

The SLIP program offers a comprehensive eight-week training regiment on weekends, and board members will attempt to land 150 summer internships this year. That's no easy task with all of the competition for summer work.

Shanise Johnson, SLIP's program director and a graduate is proud of the overall success. "So far, we've graduated 2,600 students and helped open all kinds of new horizons. We have many alumnus who come back and volunteer their time and stay in touch with our program," she says.

St. Louis has been able to integrate workers at all levels into the business community. These are people who are earning a regular pay check while experiencing productive lives. They certainly have both Mentor St. Louis and the St. Louis Internship Program to thank for getting their collective lives off on the right track.