Mentoring program comes full circle

Monday, April 4, 2005

Decontee Kofa and Bintou Jatta

Founder Decontee Kofa,right, and mentee-turned-mentor Bintou Jatta

When SCSU student Decontee Kofa heard the call for volunteers to help troubled local girls turn their lives in the right direction, her response was immediate. Three years later, her lasting “big sister” relationship with Chanel Lewis, now a 10th grader at Technical High School, has become the foundation for the award-winning Women and Girls Mentoring Project.

The cross-generational, cross-cultural group of 15 SCSU women students mentoring 25 local high school girls meets weekly at the SCSU Women’s Center to talk about issues and motivate each other through personal stories, encouragement, and activities to explore career fields and expand their expectations for the future.

The program started in fall of 2001, when Vice Principal Lanie Odette from St. Cloud’s South Junior High School appealed to members of the Council of African American Students (CAAS) at SCSU to reach out to some of her female students. She had an idea that spending some time with college-age women – fellow students of color – could help girls whose problems were affecting their behavior. It did. In a matter of months Odette was reporting noticeable differences in the girls’ attendance and schoolwork.

Kofa was moved to action because Odette’s plan touched a nerve. “I thought about myself at that age, and I knew if I’d had a mentor – someone else to talk to about issues that were serious to me instead of dealing with them myself – it would have made a huge difference,” Kofa said. “I came from a single parent household, as Chanel does, and sometimes I was lonely.” She and two fellow CAAS members, Tesha Alston and Tasha Taylor, were the initial volunteers. Alston and Taylor have since graduated from SCSU, but Kofa went on to organize a more structured mentoring organization the following year.

In the fall of 2003 Kofa worked to make the group a bona fide SCSU student organization eligible for funding from SCSU student activity fees. The process led her to the SCSU Women’s Center to find a formal adviser for the new group, Today’s Women. Staff member Lee LaDue was stunned to hear Kofa’s description of her active, already thriving student of color mentoring group, since she knew two faculty members had been working on a grant to initiate just such an organization. So the match between them and Today’s Women was made.

“It was just amazing,” said Kofa, a recipient of St. Cloud’s 2004 Mayor’s High Five Award for Diversity. “The work we’d been doing with the girls was a perfect fit with what these professors envisioned. It was a blessing finding out about each other.”

SCSU professors Niloufer Merchant, who teaches community psychology, and Lalita Subrahmanyan, whose field is teacher development, landed $26,000 in grant funding to take the mentoring program to the next step.

The program is expected to have a tremendous ripple effect on individuals, their families and their communities. SCSU participants are developing valuable personal and professional skills, as well as deriving great satisfaction from the impact they are having on their younger protégées, and their mentees are gaining the self-esteem and motivation to aspire to higher educational and career goals. The supportive environment that the young people are experiencing will have a lasting influence on their lives and the lives of those they touch in their future endeavors and relationships.

The program has come full circle with the group’s first graduate now a college student. With the help of a $5,000 scholarship, Bintou Jatta has gone from high school mentee to SCSU freshman. And true to the purpose and goals of the group, Jatta is mentoring another St.Cloud girl whose life will be enriched by the bonding, support, and inspiration found in the Women and Girls Mentoring Project.

- Marsha Shoemaker

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