Affinity Mentoring – Heroes Within Part I: Monica Zavala

As the New Year approaches and nature hibernates, space abounds for reflection. Ideally, what each of us will find are the true corners of our hearts that are the strongest and that shine the brightest.

Affinity Mentoring’s Site Coordinator, Monica, is an example of this light and we are so grateful for her!

As a new member of the Affinity Team, I’ve endeavored to get to know my coworkers in quest to truly know the heart of the organization, beginning with its staff. What inspires each individual to champion this work day after day? What life circumstances have they been through that connects them to the mission and vision of Affinity Mentoring? What current challenges do students, their families and surrounding communities face that breaks their hearts? What fuels them to fight for more?  

For Monica, Affinity’s Southwest Elementary School – Academia Bilingüe Site Coordinator, the opportunity to build relationships with the students and mentors propels her forward. With a background in family engagement, she approaches her work with the intelligence and wisdom of someone who knows the landscape well. 

You can tell the impact Monica’s experience has on the matches she brings together and oversees at her site. When students walk into her room for mentoring, their eyes light up with glee. The kind of joy that comes from feeling both safe and seen. 

Since joining the organization in 2018, Monica has nurtured matches that span across several years. She’s had the opportunity to witness how students come out of their protective shells and blossom into articulate, self-assured youth who aspire to be – and WILL be – next-generation leaders. 

The brilliance of Affinity Mentoring’s program is only as strong as its staff’s ability to overcome the changing dynamics both inside and outside the school system and Monica is no exception. 

She intimately knows the challenges families face, and the decisions that parents are torn between. There are times when attending a band concert conflicts with a work shift that puts food on their table at home. Monica sees how these impossible balancing acts really weigh on parents who deeply desire to show up for their kids. She reminds these parents, and us all, that we belong. We’re a part of something outside our nuclear family that will extend and support our nuclear family at the same time. 

It is powerful and life-changing work we’ve undertaken, and we are so grateful for staff like Monica who tirelessly champion the voice of her students and larger community. 

I’m often left wondering, who would I become if I had Monica in my life years ago? 

New Executive Director

Rocio Moreno

Affinity Mentoring began in 2001 under the Kid’s Hope model, a cause championed by Laura Ward in partnership with Mars Hill. Over the next decade-plus, Kid’s Hope did its best to address various needs in the 49507 area code, however that proximity began alerting the team to additional opportunities that would benefit the community. Thus began the transformation of Kid’s Hope into Affinity Mentoring, which became its own 501 (C)3 in 2016. 

The longstanding existence of this agency is no doubt in large part because of its relentless dedication to empowering youth and families – stakeholders in their communities at large – to reach not only their goals, but their dreams. 

Among the staff and leadership that has kept Affinity thriving during times of challenge and transition is our newly appointed Executive Director, Rocio Moreno. Rocio joined the organization in 2017 after graduating from Grand Valley State University with her Master’s degree in Social Work. 

“From the second I walked into the Burton location for the interview of the Mentor Center manager position, I connected with the heritage of spanish-speaking students and staff and my own experiences struggling with academic and emotional thriving. I am driven by faith and I believed it was my time to uplift those around me. I would consistently see the gratitude of the families I worked to empower. So many times I’d run into a family during a community event or at one of the schools and they would either hug me or thank me because they were so thankful for Affinity’s program.” 

Through its seasons of leadership, Affinity Mentoring has become a highly effective program that bolsters social emotional learning, academic skills, and leadership growth. It is an individualized and personal program tailored to each student and their particular needs. The organization uses different metrics to track the impact of the program including mentor, mentee, and community. Through these surveys Affinity is able to identify areas of growth, community needs, and the best way to invest its resources. Affinity listens to those who are most impacted by the work that we do. Across the board, these community connections showcase attendance rate increases, improvement in academics and a higher quality of life in general for all who participate. Some students have been in the mentoring program for 8 years and others who were once mentees have now become mentors themselves. Other mentors have gone on to adopt children as a result of their experience with their mentee or sharing their family’s holidays with the family of their mentee or mentor. 

Rocio also shares about the significance of the program and why it’s relevant to the Grand Rapids community as a whole–not just program participants. 

“We are constantly doing multi-generational work. Not just for the mentors and mentees, but for the families of both. We are rooted in the family structure, not simply in a student’s academic success. Part of this work includes the reduction of barriers that individuals face in pursuit of success, notably, our program participants as well as their kin. In her own words, Rocio strives to leave a mark on the legacy of what Affinity is and will become. She acknowledges the many that have come before her time who have done amazing work both within Affinity and the community. 

“Both the organization and those who have come before my time have a very special place in my heart. They are an inspiration of the mark that I would like to leave behind in an effort to support students’ social emotional learning, academic skills, and leadership growth”.

“The organization is fundamental to the community because we are building up our next generation. The students we’re serving will grow up to be our next City Commissioners, Teachers, Mentors, Executive Directors, etc. We are planting seeds of empowerment; seeds of belonging, and continuing to cultivate a brave space that amplifies the voices of young agents of change in a diverse and inclusive community. As a mother of two, I know the impact my children will have on the next generation and I see each mentee the same way.”

“As stakeholders in and around Grand Rapids, we need to understand we are not separate entities and that at the heart of our city is our youth. “If we consistently show simple acts of kindness, our children will grow up speaking life into their own generation, and those to come.” 

For those looking to get involved, there are several ways to join our work be it as a volunteer, mentor, donor, community partner or board member. We are always looking to diversify our program offerings based on the needs of our community. We’d love for you to join us on this important journey!

For more information, visit our website at

Affinity appoints new Executive Director

April 19, 2022 | By Rachel Humphreys

Sharalla Ankrah, Executive Director of Affinity Mentoring

Affinity Mentoring’s Board of Directors has named Sharalle Ankrah the new Executive Director. Cassandra will remain on staff until May 13 to support the leadership transition.

Sharalle holds a wealth of experience in both education and mentoring. She’s worked as an educator within a GRPS-authorized charter school, a director of after school programming, and a director of other mentoring organizations.

“We look forward to how she will help move Affinity Mentoring forward with her strong skill set which includes grant writing, diversity, equity and inclusion, and leadership experience,” says John Robinson, Affinity Mentoring board president. “She is a passionate and  experienced leader who has a deep understanding of the community. She brings critical perspective and insight, and was unanimously chosen by both the Affinity Mentoring team and board to step into this role.”

Sharalle is a graduate from Grand Valley State University with a degree in English for Secondary Education. A Detroit native, Sharalle has always had a heart for community development through inspiring the forthcoming generation. She believes mentoring can help create equitable opportunities for growth and community impact among students and families who are often left in the margins.

“We have made incredible changes to so many aspects of Affinity Mentoring over the past two years, but I fully recognize that we are approaching the limits of what my leadership can offer to the organization,” said Cassandra, Affinity Mentoring’s outgoing executive director. “It is with true honor and joy that I pass the mic over to Sharalle as the next executive director of Affinity Mentoring.”

Sharalle has worked hard to develop curricula and facilitate programming that influences student’s conduct, decisions, leadership, and helped reveal identity. Sharalle  heavily enjoys directing youth ministry at her local church and spending quality time with family and friends. She values the relationships created with her students in Grand Rapids, South Africa, and West Africa, and being a continued resource for students and families. 

Sharalle’s personal mission statement is to aid in identity development through education and example. She has a vision to be a  leader in youth development in Grand Rapids with influence on a systematic level that brings revenue, impact, and action into Affinity Mentoring.

Download the Press Release.

Affinity Intern Spotlight: Hannah

March 9, 2022

Hannah VanHoorne, BSW Intern

“My name is Hannah VanHoorne and I am a social work student at Grand Valley State University. I am a motivated, self-driven, and compassionate person with experience in behavioral analysis and mentoring skills. I have found personal benefit in working in schools, hospitals, and therapy centers.”

Hannah spends more of her time in the Burton Mentor Center supporting students and mentors.

Thank you for your service and commitment to Affinity!

Meet our other 2021-2022 intern, Lauren Enos!

Welcome, Mayra!

December 31, 2021

Mayra Rodriguez, Office Coordinator

Welcome Mayra Rodriguez, Affinity’s New Office Coordinator!

Mayra has a passion for working with people and has dedicated over 15 years to serving her community in various capacities–from creating community awareness events in the greater Grand Rapids area, volunteering as a Sunday school teacher at her church, to missionary work in Mexico.
Mayra is the owner and creative mind behind May Bella Photography and loves bringing smiles to the faces of those she photographs. Mayra is always looking for opportunities to learn and grow her skills. She is currently working towards  gaining more knowledge in the communication and human behavior realm.
Mayra is an aspiring writer and is working on her very first book as well as becoming a motivational speaker. Besides the passion she has for her community, Mayra enjoys  spending time with her family, singing, photography, arts and crafts, meditation, and traveling.

Welcome to the team, Mayra!