Mentor St. Louis: Shaping the Future, One Student at a Time
by Cheryl Walker
Jerry Schlichter didn't have to read the story in Fortune Magazine to know, "the number one indicator of success for a child is a good relationship with a caring adult." Schlichter, who is also a trial lawyer and founding partner with the firm Schlichter Bogard and Denton, has worked with young people from the time he was in college and has seen firsthand the difference a personal relationship makes in the life of a child.
"Once a child goes to school, the guidance of a trusted adult is very inspirational for a young student," Schlichter notes
For Schlichter, the Fortune story was a call to action. Also, noting the acceptance of the St. Louis Cote Brilliante School Mentoring model, Schlichter and his wife Susan wanted to improve the chances of success for more students in the region. That was the beginning of Mentor St. Louis in 1995.
The program's focus is on the St. Louis Public Schools, where Mentor St. Louis believed there was the greatest need and the greatest potential for positive results. Current board members include business professionals, pastors, physicians and caring community members.
The Mentor St. Louis program represents a strong and unique collaboration with the St. Louis Public Schools, community groups, corporations, various faith communities and committed individuals. Mentor St. Louis works in collaboration with the School District, but the organization is separate from the St. Louis Schools and privately funded.
"I didn't want to seek funding for an idea with no credible program, so my wife and I provided the initial funding," Schlichter says. "After two years, we had results, we had credibility and the organization has been quite successful in securing private donations from individuals, corporations and foundations thanks to the hard work of the board and dedicated staff."
For a mentoring program, though, time is more important than money. For the 1999-2000 school year, Mentor St. Louis has approximately 1,300 adult volunteer mentors in St. Louis elementary schools. They start at the kindergarten level and work with children up to fourth grade. Mentor St. Louis would like to be in every classroom through fifth grade in the eight schools in which the organization is currently involved a goal that will require an additional 1,000 mentors.
Beverly Thompson, director of Recruitment for Mentor St. Louis is very positive about reaching this goal in the next two years. She knows it is just a matter of getting the message in front of enough people.
"We make mentoring a joy. Mentor St. Louis provides the complete infrastructure and mentor training," Thompson says, explaining that mentors meet once a month with the student after school and then have weekly contact by phone or mail. She likes to say the only labor required is a labor of love.
Some of the mentoring activities revolve around classroom objectives such as building math or reading skills. In fact, many students and mentors read a book together each month. However, the program also emphasizes building a relationship with a child, taking time to talk and play games.
Both Schlichter and Thompson point to the diversity of the mentor base as another positive for the community. About 40 percent of Mentor St. Louis volunteers are African American, another 40 percent are Caucasian with the remainder Asian and Latin American. Plus, mentors come from the entire region, not just the City of St. Louis. Schlichter says some employers in St. Louis County also allow time off work and provide transportation for volunteer mentors.
"Mentor St. Louis is a wonderful example of dismantling myths about racism in our community," Thompson says, adding that the students are diverse, as well, and contrary to common assumptions, the majority of students are in stable homes.
Supporting schools and students is about long-term goals and commitments. Many of the benefits such as lowering the dropout rate and better educating the workforce are not realized for many years. However, Schlichter and Thompson report early victories, one child at a time.
"It's wonderful just to see the enthusiasm of students interacting with mentors," Thompson observes. "We seek to support parents and teachers, not replace them."
Schlichter tells a story about a first-grader who obtained glasses with the help of the mentor, teacher and parents. "Being involved in a personal way is very meaningful," he says.
After five years, the program is being recognized, as well. Recently, the Schlichters were honored for founding Mentor St. Louis and for their contribution to childhood education and development as one of five recipients of the Focus St. Louis What's Right With The Region Awards. Also, the program has been recognized by the national Mentoring Conference and by Hillary Clinton who came to visit the program at Clark School in support of her book, It Takes A Village.
Accolades aside, Schlichter knows the mentor-student relationship is what the program is all about. The schools would like to see the program continue to expand with mentors following students through higher grades, a request Mentor St. Louis hopes to accommodate.
"We are only limited by the number of volunteers," Schlichter says. "I encourage companies and individuals to make this long-term investment in our children."
Thompson adds, "A mentor is a wise and trusted friend and as a mentor to a child, you're imparting a bit of yourself into his or her life."
For more information, call Mentor St. Louis at 314/361-8804 or visit the Web site at www.mentorstlouis.org.
Cheryl Walker is a St. Louis-based freelance writer.