LIFE COACH: SunTrust’s Steve Vito coaches youth football.

At the Peach’s Restaurant on Bee Ridge Road, a half-dozen developmentally disabled students from Oak Park School show up with a teacher every day during the school year to bus tables and do dishes. Restaurant manager Angela Polley, who started the collaboration, says it has been a big success. The customers like talking to the students, the restaurant gets a good new source of workers, and hard-to-employ young people find out what it’s like to have a job.

Mary Beth Hansen, who bought the chain of 10 restaurants in 2010, likes the idea so much that she plans to start a similar program at the Peach’s Restaurant in Venice.

“It benefits us, along with the employees, when we get these students out among people,” says Hansen. “We’re so happy to have this program.”

Mentoring happens whenever one person shares his knowledge and experience with another person. Most of it goes on informally between co-workers, family members or friends. But the most powerful kind happens when an older, successful person reaches out to a young person who is at risk. When they make a lasting connection, the community wins.

A solid body of research shows that students from low-income backgrounds do better in grade school and are more likely to graduate from high school and college if they have mentors. Another pile of studies proves that adults who serve as mentors are happier and healthier than those who don’t. Social activities like mentoring also help people stay mentally sharp as they age. But the benefits of mentoring go far beyond the people who are directly involved.

Taxpayers also win when mentoring relationships succeed, because each successful relationship adds a new worker while eliminating a huge public liability. Consider that a typical drug addict consumes about $1.25 million in tax spending during his lifetime, according to the accounting firm PwC. In other words, persuading one teenager to just say no will save taxpayers a truckload of money.

Yet mentoring’s most important benefit goes beyond numbers. Whenever two people from different backgrounds form a lasting friendship, the community itself gets stronger. Sociologists refer to friendships and other non-economic connections as social capital. These connections work in a community the same way oil works in an engine: They decrease friction while increasing productivity.

The latest census report shows that Sarasota and Manatee are becoming more diverse. Residents come from 91 different countries and all 50 states. Our metro also has a big and widening gap between rich and poor, and a disproportionate number of the poor are black and Latino children. Diverse places like ours grow better, litigate less, and recover from crises quicker when people from different backgrounds find ways to work together.

Fortunately, businesspeople have plenty of mentoring opportunities from which to choose. Courtney Wise is the executive director of Take Care Advisors, a small business that does private geriatric nursing, and she has also been a Big Sister for the past three years. “My little sister just turned 14,” says Wise. “We mostly go around and do fun stuff. I also encourage her to think of things she wants to do. Not long ago she wanted to send a care package to soldiers in Afghanistan, so we set a budget, shopped around, put the box together and sent it off. I feel like if this girl has a problem, she can count on me.”

Wise got involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Suncoast through the Young Professionals of The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, a group of about 450 businesspeople in their 20s and 30s. A lot of mentoring happens within the chamber, says YPG chairman Frank Maggio, a loan officer at Insignia Bank. But the young professionals also reach out to middle and high school students who want to get started in business. They partner with Community Youth Development, a not-for-profit that arranges safe, drug-free activities for students in Sarasota County, to hold specific career information events once a month. Whenever possible, the sessions are held on-site. One session on careers in healthcare took place at Doctors Hospital, for example.

“We held the legal session in the boardroom of a big downtown law firm, a very impressive place,” says Wise. “While we gave the students a lot of information, we also showed them what [a professional setting] feels like.”

Another participant at the Doctors Hospital session was Jessica Pena, 30, a registered nurse. Pena mentored middle-schooler Morgan Phillips for four years through a Sarasota YMCA program called Y-Mentor. “[Jessica] changed my perspective about goofing around and being bad,” says Morgan, who is now in ninth grade.

“My grades went way up. We would work on homework together, but really we’d just talk. It was great to get things off my chest, and she had a lot of good advice.” Morgan and her mother recently moved to Ithaca, N.Y., and Morgan wants to become a veterinarian.

SunTrust Bank is another supporter of the Y-Mentor program. The bank encourages its employees to volunteer during business hours, and dozens spend an hour or two tutoring and encouraging. Steve Vito, who coordinates SunTrust’s employee volunteering, says its employees logged 14,000 hours with children last year in Sarasota and Charlotte counties. Vito put in 800 hours of volunteer time last year, including coaching a youth sports program.

“Mentoring is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s all over our company,” says bank president and CEO Margaret Callihan, who made her own mentoring connection with a Sarasota County middle-schooler.

“Our senior people mentor our junior people, and our Solid Gives Back program gives employees paid time off to do more informal mentoring in the community. It’s in SunTrust’s interest to make a positive impact on young people.”

Cash helps, too. The Tommy Bahama store on St. Armands Circle has held an annual golf tournament since 2006 that has raised nearly $250,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast (BBBSS). The Venice-based organization partners with businesses in 11 counties, as well as not-for-profits and church congregations. Organizations are usually asked to pledge both time and money, says Gina Taylor, BBBSS vice president of marketing and communications. That’s because it costs about $1,000 a year to maintain each match between a “big” and a “little.” About three dozen businesses in Sarasota and Manatee have committed to share their employees with BBBSS for at least a year, and many others have donated funds.

Craig Waters, 56, is a manager in the parts department at Firkins Automotive in Bradenton. He signed up with BBBSS four years ago when his wife saw its booth at a health fair. The couple had just sent their daughter to college, and “We’re awfully glad we signed up,” he says. They connected with a brother and sister, who were nine and seven years old, respectively. Now the boy is entering middle school and “both of them are getting A’s and B’s,” says Waters. “We mostly do fun stuff, but we help a lot with homework. And we love being with them.” A year ago, Waters took on a second Little Brother, a nine-year-old whose single mother couldn’t handle him. “He has an attention deficit problem,” says Waters. “It’s more of a challenge, but we’re making progress.

“I would recommend Big Brothers to anyone. It’s the perfect arrangement. You have fun with them, and then you send them home.”

 

SISTERHOOD: Take Care’s Courtney Wise, right, walks the bridge with Lexie Curry.

BECOMING A MENTOR IN THE SCHOOLS

In Sarasota, mentoring organizations have a central organizing point at Partners and Alliances Linking Schools (PALS), an office of the Sarasota County School District. Almost 15,000 school volunteers donated nearly 264,000 hours of time last year, the equivalent of 132 full-time positions. Yet the district certified only 658 volunteers as mentors.

Background checks are required.

State laws require every adult school visitor to show an I.D., which is instantly checked against a database of sex offenders. To volunteer in a classroom, you need to get into the district’s database, which requires a more thorough background check. And if you want to be a mentor, you must be checked against a constantly updated Federal database that costs about $90 per query. Some not-for-profits will do the background checks at no charge to mentors (this is just one reason it costs $1,000 for BBBSS to maintain each match).

It’s worth the hassle, though.

The need for more mentors is acute. About 25,000 children in Sarasota and Manatee counties live below the poverty line, and 44,000 are being raised by a single parent. Many of these kids are in desperate need of the stability that can only be provided by adult mentors. Without guidance, they face greater risk of having their lives derailed by pregnancy, drug abuse, mental illness, or incarceration.

 

GOOD TIPS: Peach’s Angela Polley, right, with Oak Park student Ber Iverson.

RESOURCES

Sarasota County Schools Team Up:This new, one-stop website lists mentoring and volunteer opportunities in all Sarasota schools: scsteamup.org

Manatee County Schools Volunteer Programs:manatee.k12.fl.us/departments/cpr/community/community/volunteer.html

Foundations Offering Volunteer Opportunities:CommunityFoundation of Sarasota County (cfsarasota.org) and Gulf Coast Community Foundation (gulfcoastcf.org)

Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast:bbbssun.org

Jewish Family and Children’s Services:jfcs-cares.org

YMCA Volunteering:thesarasotay.org/VolunteerattheY.aspx

Take Stock in Children:takestockinchildren.org

Sarasota Young Professionals:sarasotaypg.com

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