“Let me tell you about my buddy.”
Like a proud papa, Brandon Pomish pulls out his cell phone to show off a photo of an adorable 8-year-old wearing a Piston’s jacket and a huge grin. “Look how handsome he is,” Brandon brags, “and he’s extremely intelligent too!”
Brandon, 30, is not yet a dad, but he’s smitten all the same with a child he’s taken into his life through Jewish Family Service (JFS) and a non-sectarian program called Mentor Connection. As a mentor in the program, Brandon has committed to spending a couple of hours with his “mentee,” Matthew, at least twice a month for a year of activities they both enjoy. For them it’s been Piston’s and Tiger’s games, movies and museums, trips to the zoo, batting cages and golf ranges, a first visit to Lafayette Coney Island, lots of Lego time and ice cream. Together they laugh. And they talk. About school, about life.
Talking about the match made over a year ago, Brandon beams, “I still try to see him once every two to three weeks, and if I could, I would hang out with him every weekend.
An opportunity to give back
As Business Development Director at PCI One Source Contracting, and with the construction business coming back to life in Detroit, Brandon is indeed a busy guy. Beyond his business concerns, he is an active volunteer in the community. Brandon’s connections to the Detroit Federation include his service on the board of NEXTGen Detroit, and as a member of the Capital Needs Committee, the Security Committee, and most recently, Federation’s Partnership 2Gether Committee – a move that will take him to business meetings in Israel this coming November.
How does mentoring a young boy fit in with Brandon’s busy life? “You put yourself out there, heart and soul,” he says, “We can talk about rebuilding our community, but sometimes it takes a personal, one-on-one commitment. I’ve chosen to be a mentor to a boy who doesn’t have a father in his life. There are many children and young teens like my little guy – on the waiting list, still in need of the kind of support many of us would gladly give – if only we knew. So I’m doing whatever I can to help make the connections and to recruit mentors, like my friend Ryan Fishman, and others from NEXTGen Detroit. I figure if 500 people show up for a NEXTGen event — and we can recruit a few people to the program, we can at least fill some of those gaps.” Challenging the NEXTGen community, Brandon continued,”The leadership has done an excellent job of engaging and energizing the Detroit young community. I would like to see NEXTGen take it to a new level. There’s so much need.”
It’s all about the match
“I think our match has been an overwhelming success, and I expect our relationship to last,” says Brandon. “Kudos to Mentor Connection for finding such a compatible match for both of us.”
“Each person in the Program Coordinator role has a Master’s Degree in Social Work,” says Emily Croitori, Program Coordinator of Mentor Connections at JFS. “We know what – and who – we’re looking for. Brandon came to us passionate about the program and with an interest in recruiting some of his peers. We knew he’d be the right person for Matthew, and a real boost to the program itself.”
Supporting families throughout Oakland Country for nearly ten years, Mentor Connection was established in 2004 with a three-year grant of $500,000 from the United States Department of Education. Since its inception, the program has touched the lives of more than 400 young people between the ages of 7 and 17, through the continued support of JFS, as well as grants from United Way for Southeast Michigan, Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit, Phillip and Elizabeth Filmer Memorial Charity Trust, as well as other community grants.
A Metro Detroiter with a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Michigan and almost decade of experience, first as a social worker in the Waterford School District and then as a residential counselor for teenagers and young women in Nashville, Tennessee, Emily Croitori returned to Detroit almost two years ago. As Michelle Malamis, former Director of the Mentor Connection, explained, Emily had “come full circle,” stepping into the very job Michelle had offered her when they first met at a conference in Washington, D.C., back in 2004. Emily was not available at the time, but recommended the woman they ultimately hired. And, as luck would have it, this past February, the doors opened once again for Emily.
According to Emily, one of the true joys of her job is interviewing prospective mentors and hearing their stories. “Mentoring isn’t for everyone,” she says. “The time commitment can be a challenge, but the investment of four to eight hours a month with a young person can be an immeasurably rewarding experience, and a great way to give back to the community.”
Current mentors in the program range from age 23 to their 70’s. The match process itself is intense. Mentors go through a rigorous interview, a background check and a two-hour training session before meeting their potential match.“We don’t match our children on the basis of first-come-first-served,” says Emily, “The process can take some time because we’re very careful about identifying and matching interests, personalities and geographic locations.”
Checks and balances
Safety and compatibility are the first priorities of the program. While there’s no “formula” other than same gender matching, the program follows policies and procedures based on national standards, as well as the research of Mentor Michigan, a part of Michigan Community Service Commission – where JFS is involved at the leadership level.
“There are a lot of checks and balances built into the standards of our programs,” says Emily. “After we’ve made the match, we work equally hard to sustain the relationships. In the first year, for example, we call to check in on a regular basis with our mentors, the parents and the kids, as well. Beyond the initial screening and training, we schedule group support sessions to discuss topics of interest. And, we plan at least three to four events for mentors and mentees throughout the year.”
The fact that over 40 percent of those matches initiated through Mentor Connection have grown and blossomed into long-term relationships speaks to the quality and sustainability of the program. The support of volunteers, business partners and funders in the community also plays a key role in the equation for success.
As a staff of one, Emily is ever grateful to a roster of volunteers – all of whom are current or former mentors. With 35 children – mostly boys – still on the waiting list, and many of them in the northern Oakland County areas of Waterford and Pontiac, volunteers serve as extra “eyes and ears” throughout the community. They keep in touch, they make calls and they reach out to their sphere of influence – an indispensable resource for recruitment and administration.
Looking for business partners
Another aspect of Mentor Connection is community and business development. As a new member of the Farmington Hills Chamber of Commerce, Mentor Connection has been able to reach out to individuals and businesses to recruit mentors and community partners. Through the Community Partnership Program, businesses can sponsor events or offer services or discounts to mentors and their mentees. Current Community Partners include: Jump Station, Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum, Franklin Athletic Club, JCC West Bloomfield/Oak Park, Putting Edge-Novi, Swirlberry, Kensington Mills Falls – Miniature Golf, Detroit Zoo, Farmington YMCA, and Heavner Canoe to name a few.
With additional outreach efforts to rabbis, synagogues and organizations like NEXTGen Detroit and Repair the World, Emily hopes to broaden the reach of the community. “Most of our kids are not Jewish,” she says, “but most of our mentors are. While our primary goal is to match the children already in our program, we would like to see more of the community embracing the concept of the Mentor Connection.”
“Kids can be at risk for all kinds of reasons,” says Emily, “You’d be surprised just how much it can mean to have a positive, healthy relationship with another adult to provide a sounding board and another voice in their formative years.”
Volunteers, mentors and mentees wanted: Interested in hearing more? Reach Emily Croitori, Program Coordinator, Mentor Connection at 248-592-2317 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.mentorconnect.org.