Stacey + Mariana’s Story

Stacey Coffman is the Office Manager at Aon and has been for the last 25 years. She and her husband, Tim,  have been married for 31 years and live in Cedar Springs. Their daughter, Lauren, lives in Ann Arbor. She wanted an opportunity to be a friend and role model to a student in Grand Rapids.

“You guys did a great job putting us together. It was a perfect match. “

Stacey started looking online for mentoring opportunities when she came across Affinity Mentoring. Last year Stacey was matched with Mariana, a shy 4th grader at Burton Elementary. “She hasn’t been shy since day one!” laughs Stacey. “We get along famously. You guys did a great job putting us together. It was a perfect match. Our birthdays are both in June, we both have glasses, and we’re both crazy!”

She describes Mariana as “loving, warm, and kind.” Together they read, practice math problems, make crafts, play a lot of games, and talk. “She has a special place in my heart. Her drawings are all over my cubicle. It’s enriched my life and opened up my eyes. It’s the best part of my week. Her smile lights up her whole face. She laughs from the tip of her toes to the top of her head. She’s always laughing and joking. It’s awesome,” smiles Stacey.

“Everyone can use a little more love in their life. At 53 I can still grow too.”

Stacey believes it’s a mutually beneficial experience for the mentee and mentor, “It’s good for me too. It makes me follow through on things and be accountable. I show up and am there when I’m supposed to be. I don’t let work take over my life. I have learned about different cultures, her dad is from Guatemala. It’s opened up my eyes a lot. Everyone can use a little more love in their life. At 53 I can still grow too.”

Stacey loves having the Mentor Center support and the relational approach Affinity embraces, “You can have a relationship. You can’t relate to children in programs that just focus on reading and in a short time. The Mentor Center is great, the supplies are great, and [the staff] are very helpful. They’re very nice, easy to contact, and always smiling. They’re not looking over your shoulder. They flutter in and out to make sure everything is ok. They get excited for the students.”

Aside from weekly volunteering, Stacey has also been a champion of Affinity at Aon. With Stacey’s advocacy, Aon has financially supported Affinity for the past two years. Aon recently donated $1,200 to sponsor a mentor match. This generous support ensures one mentoring match receives one year of mentoring, match support, resources, parent engagement, and anything else needed to be successful.

Aon is a leading global professional services firm providing a broad range of risk, retirement and health solutions. Our 50,000 colleagues in 120 countries empower results for clients by using proprietary data and analytics to deliver insights that reduce volatility and improve performance. By enabling our clients to take risks, we create social impact every day—driving innovation and economic growth and helping millions of people to recover and thrive in the face of adversity.

Our volunteers represent the best of Aon by demonstrating a commitment to service that extends beyond our day-to-day business responsibilities and into our communities. Each year, Aon employees devote thousands of hours of service to charitable organizations and educational institutions around the world.Visit aon.com/empowerresults to discover how Aon is making a social impact in communities worldwide.

If you’d like to support mentor matches like Stacey and Mariana donate online or if you’d like to learn more about corporate sponsorship opportunities contact Rachel Lopez.


A Mentor Story: Brandon Reyes

“When I was 5 or 6 years old my mom and I fled Veracruz, Mexico. Escaping an abusive relationship with my father,” explains Brandon. “As a young kid I still understood what was going on and why we had to leave.” Brandon vividly remembers crossing with the Coyotes to the United States, “I had really bad asthma and walking through the hot desert made it so much worse. We ran out of water so we ended up giving up. We turned ourselves in.” That was the first time.  

“My mom is a very kind and loving person. She’s really strong and has a big heart,” smiles Brandon. His mom knew she needed to leave the country in order to get them out of the abusive relationship. “The second time we traveled from Juarez, Mexico to Tucson, Arizona to Chicago and finally to Grand Rapids. My aunt lived there.” His aunt was able to help his mom find work at a local factory. Brandon and his mom lived in a small apartment with his aunt and six other people for the first 5 years. “During that time she was my mom and my dad.” A few years later “Popo” came into his family, becoming his step-dad and eventually “dad.”  

“I started school at Burton Elementary at the end of 2003. I had never gone to school before. We couldn’t afford it in Mexico. Everything was new. New culture. New language. Everything sounded blurry.” Brandon remembers one of his teachers, Ms. Pena, who made him feel welcome and helped him understand the new culture and language. She was married to a Latino and had learned Spanish. “My mom and I were really surprised.”

Although Brandon was getting used to his new life and new school. He still struggled with English and reading. His teacher, Ms. Morningstar, helped him get a mentor, Allan. “At first I was kind of scared. I didn’t know much English. It was tough to say words at the beginning. He made me feel confident and not worry if I said it correctly. He would show me a graph of objects and pictures – made sure I knew the basics to help me communicate.”

“Soon I started looking forward to [mentoring]. One time I got upset I couldn’t spell the words on a quiz. I tried to memorize them as best as I could. He cheered me up.” Allan, cared about him and just showed up. “I remember him asking me ‘how was my day, how’s mom, how do you feel in school’ –  he always started there. My mom wasn’t always at home, she worked a lot. It helped having someone ask me how my day was.”

One of Brandon’s favorite memories was going to Spring Hill Camp. “It was incredible. I had never gone camping. We did tie dye shirts, rock climbing, there was a lake – it was the most incredible thing. One day kids started getting cards and gifts from their parents. I thought my parents probably didn’t know. Then I received a bag of candy and a card from Allan.  I thought no one would remember me. It made my day to be honest.”

“When I came home I was talking about camping so much we finally went as a family. My parents wanted to go. In the Latino culture we usually stay close to our community. It was new for us. We went to Silver Laker and it changed the perspective of my family a lot. Now we go camping every year.”

“My mentors and teachers saw potential in me. Without my mentors I wouldn’t have graduated from high school. I wouldn’t have done a lot of activities or been as involved. I probably wouldn’t have the job that I do now. Now I go to Grand Rapids Community College, I enjoy graphic design, and I work at a nonprofit, Health Net of West Michigan. I’m really involved in the community and like to help people access resources.”

Brandon has also volunteered for FitKids, Michigan United, and Cosecha GR. “I’ve done a lot of public speaking about immigration, immigrant rights, sharing my story, and how to get involved.” In the future he hopes to start a nonprofit. His dream school is Calvin College. When asked about what he hopes the future will bring the mentoring program, “I hope a lot of kids are participating, I never want the program to end. It benefits the whole community.”

 


If you’d like to support other students like Brandon please consider giving the gift of mentoring starting at $10 a month. 

Leading by Example: Mentor, Donor, Partner

 

Leading by Example | Board Member, Mentor, and Community Partner
By Rachel Lopez

Jason Loepp is a father of two young children. He and his wife, Heather, are from the East side of Michigan and lived in Tennessee for several years. In 2008 they moved back to Michigan to be closer to family, which is when Jason joined the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) team.

Leadership at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan
Over the past 10 years Jason has worked his way up from Individual Contributor to Director of West MI/UP Customer Consulting and Reporting at BCBSM. He enjoys being an active member of the community and taking part in local events. One of those events was a “Friends of Burton” at Burton Elementary – which is where he was first introduced to Affinity Mentoring.

“Being a father of two kids – I understand homework and the extra need and push.” He instantly connected with Affinity Mentoring and the message resonated with him. “Hearing about the need tears at your heart. I came back to the office and drummed up more support. I recruited 4 or 5 more mentors.”

That was 4 years ago. The partnership between BCBSM and Affinity is growing stronger each year. This year 8 employees from BCBSM are volunteering weekly as mentors. “I’m a big believer in the program, I try to get as many people involved as possible,” says Jason. A large part of the growth is through word-of-mouth and employees returning from mentoring talking about their experience.

“People started getting involved in small events, like the Secret Santa Workshop, and I talk to my co-workers about mentoring. People want to get involved. It starts with one day, so what’s one hour per week?”

Weekly Mentoring
Jason, a mentor himself, has been working with Angel for the past 4 years. “We’re both competitive. We play a lot of Uno – but add math into it. The first one to get 100 points loses. I think I’m the proud reigning champion, but you can say he is. The first time he beat me he was so geeked,” chuckles Jason.

“I usually go on Friday mornings so I can be in my jeans and relaxed. We usually spend some time in the library and pick out a book. The last one he picked was about Abraham Lincoln, so I picked out an encyclopedia to see what else I could find about him. Then we talk about it more. I’m a nerd like that.”

Jason explains that Affinity aligns with many of his company’s values, “We like to do things that are athletic. It’s important to get kids out and active. BCBSM has a campaign to get kids active 60 minutes a day – if I can help get 20 minutes of those, that’s great. Angel loves soccer so we’ll sneak out onto the field to kick the ball around.”

Board Member
Jason wears many hats and is involved with Affinity at different levels – partner, mentor, and board member. “The people involved in Affinity’s leadership and their employees make a difference. They are there. It’s a hands on organization, in every level. They have a pulse on what’s going on,” comments Jason.

As a board member, he loves to get other people excited about the mission, share his experiences, and the personal benefits mentoring offers. “I think at work, it gives people from different areas of the company something in common. At home, it’s interesting that my mentee and son are both in 6th grade. It helps me make sure I’m holding my son accountable in his homework too.”

Community Partner
Jason has led the partnership between Affinity and BCBSM, they are big believers in mentoring and are in it for the long-haul, “As long as we’re here in GR we will always have people that want to mentor. To see the happiness of the kids – that’s what it’s all about. We are going to support local organizations that make a profound impact on children and Affinity does that. We’d like to get two more mentors each year.”

Not only do their employees donate their time, but the company also donates their “treasure.” As a partner, BCBSM has committed to covering half of the cost of each of their employees’ mentor match ($600 per match). “[Mentoring] is not free – the cost of supporting a match for a year. There’s a cost the run the program and we wanted to be able to support, not just the talent, but the time and treasure. We’d like other organizations to also donate their time, talent, and treasure. These kids are our future so let’s invest in them now,” says Jason.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out our Mentorship Opportunities and Community Partnerships.

10 Years Later | Ross’ Story

By Rachel Lopez

Mario and Ross at the Burton Mentor Center.

Mario and Ross at the Burton Mentor Center.

Ten years ago Ross became a mentor with our program. Over the past decade he has mentored 3 different students, including two brothers, Martin and Mario. Ross is an Investment Executive at Fifth Third Bank, “The market was terrible when I started [mentoring]. The two hour a week break from it was great when I’d mentor. I got to go be a kid for an hour. It was a way to destress.”

Ross mentored Martin from 2nd grade through 8th grade (programming ends after 8th grade). He decided to stop mentoring. He felt he and Martin had been a perfect pair, “He loved athletics, baseball, and soccer. We shared that.” Ross didn’t think he would find another student he’d be able to connect with like Martin.

However he changed his mind when Martin’s mother reached out to him personally and asked him to be a mentor again. This time for her other son, Mario. She saw how beneficial it was for her older son to have Ross as a positive male role model and wanted that for Mario. He couldn’t say no.

Now Ross and Mario have been a match for a few years. Mario is very different from Martin, he cares deeply about his academics. Instead of playing sports they read books together. “I hope he’d say I’m a friend. Sometimes I feel I don’t do as good on the academic stuff as other mentors. I’m not an educator. We’re friends. I’m someone he can count on if he doesn’t have support from family.” Through this process, Ross has become an extension of Martin and Mario’s family, and they his.

“Martin and my son are near the same age. My whole family went with Martin and his sister to the mall. My kids got to meet them.” Years after their mentorship ended, they still keep in touch, “Martin still reaches out to me when he has issues. Last summer we went to a Whitecaps Game and Dave and Busters. We all go together now.”

Martin, Ross, and Mario at the Whitecaps game.

Ross strongly believes that mentoring is mutually beneficial and that mentors can benefit just as much as the students from the experience. Becoming a mentor has had a huge impact on his life (not only as a weekly stress reliever).

“[Mentoring] helps me understand that even in our community there are kids and families that live so differently. It’s been a good thing to learn that.” He’s a big advocate for mentoring and champions the cause whenever possible. He hopes to encourage more people to become mentors.

“In my business, they think they don’t have the time. It may be the case for some folks, but I set my schedule and I block two hours every week.” Ross believes Fifth Third’s organizational culture has been supportive of his mentoring and they even track their employees’ volunteer hours.

He will challenge anyone that says they don’t have time to mentor, “They need to get over the idea they don’t have time for it. We are all busy. If we really thought about it we can squeeze two hours out. It’s not that difficult honestly. If you’re with a firm that can’t understand the importance you need to go to a different firm.”

If you’re inspired by Ross’ story there are many ways to get involved! Learn more about how to become a mentor or support our work as a community partner.

 

Board Member, Mentor, and Donor: Maddie’s Story

Board Member, Mentor, and Partner: Maddie’s Story
By Rachel Lopez

A big smile and bigger heart, Madeline (Maddie) Aguillon is a long-time mentor, donor, and board member for Affinity. She has a long history of empowering and engaging the local Hispanic community in Grand Rapids.

During her time as a student at Grand Valley State University, she along with 6 friends, founded Sigma Lambda Upsilon | Señoritas Latinas Unidas Sorority Incorporated. Maddie and her friends felt their college experience was lacking the community they wanted, so they created their own. It was a place to belong, celebrate their heritage, and give back.

After graduating, she longed to stay connected to her roots and continue giving back to her community. While working at Gordon Food Service she came across the opportunity to mentor. She jumped at it because “it was a way to integrate my passion and work.”

Now, Maddie and Meylin have been meeting for the past 3 years. “Meylin is a free spirit. She likes to be funny and lives by her own rules. Sometimes she can be misunderstood. She wants to be part of the cool crowd, but doesn’t know how to fit in. We both look forward to this hour together. It’s a time for me to do something I’m passionate about and a time for her to be herself and not have to worry about trying to fit in or impress people.”

“Meylin loves the free play. The mentoring room always smells like nail polish because of us. She likes each nail to be a different color,” Maddie laughs. “My favorite thing is to see her improvement in reading in English. At first we only spoke Spanish to each other. Now she’s reading English and she’s excited to read (even if it’s just for the prize).”

She regularly talks to Meylin’s parents, “it’s like an extension of family.” They talk about church, challenges at school, and family. Maddie’s 3 year old daughter, Carmen, loves to play with her. “They hang out at all of the picnics and go on the rides together.” Meylin often jokes “My mom likes you, but her favorite is Carmen.”

“[Mentoring] has helped me not to forget my roots. The obstacles and everything it took to get to where I’m at.” Maddie grew up in the Southwest side of Grand Rapids. Her parents, resilient and very giving, worked a lot, usually 60-80 hours a week. They worked seasonal jobs, like railroad construction, to provide a comfortable life for Maddie and her two older brothers. “They would give you the shirt off their back, even if it was the last thing they owned,” she explains.

“I get it. I know what these kids are going through.” Her family lived on Crofton, down the street from where she would later mentor. Each week is something new, she’s learning right along with her mentee. “When I sit with Meylin she says she wants to be mentor. To be able to have that impact has been amazing. I learn so much from her.”

This past year, Maddie joined our Board of Directors. She serves as the board secretary. “Being a board member allows me to witness first hand what each individual contributes to the organization at every level. We all truly keep it going.” She not only donates her time as a board member and mentor, but she also sponsors a monthly match, “It’s fulfilling to know that my donation goes directly towards such an important and much needed program in the community. No matter how big or small the donation, knowing that it could contribute towards a new mentor/mentee match or a new board game in the center for the students to enjoy, makes it all worth it.” Maddie is a committed and passionate community leader that understands it truly, takes all of us.

If you’d like to make an impact in your community sign up to become a mentor or support mentor matches by giving monthly.

 

Mentor and Donor: Alicia’s Story

Mentor and Donor: Alicia’s Story
By Rachel Lopez

Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Alicia went to Kenowa Hills and a private Catholic school. However, she didn’t feel like she fit into any standard box.

Her father is Mexican and her mother is Irish. There was often a cross-over between her two cultures, both emphasizing the community as an extension of the family. She loves her family’s legacy and rich cultural history, but being bicultural wasn’t always easy for her. With fair-skin, freckles, and curly red hair she often didn’t feel Mexican enough. Other times, she didn’t feel Irish enough.

Her parents instilled a sense of resourcefulness, hospitality, and kindness in her, “We didn’t have a lot growing up, but they always gave others what they could, whether it was hand-me-down clothes or a warm meal.” It wasn’t unusual for friends and neighbors to feel at home at her house and share big meals. 

Her family left a legacy of service in the Grand Rapids’ community. Her grandmother, Maurilla Ortiz Blakely, was an educator, mother, and community activist. Orphaned at age 6, she married at age 16 and had 5 kids by age 30. At age 47 she earned her bachelor’s and went on to have a 20 year career in social work (Have you heard of the Grand Rapids’ Mexican Festival? Yeah, that was Maurilla’s brainchild in 1970).

Although her community work was important, she remembers her most as a warm and loving grandmother who took her grandkids to Meijer in the evening to burn more energy and taught the entire family how to make tamales .

Alicia’s mother was a teacher, earned a master’s in education, and is also a mentor at Affinity. She credits her mother and grandmother for instilling her desire to serve, support, and advocate for children. Alicia was a nurse for a local summer camp for three years and taught weekend cooking and crafting classes to kids when she was younger.

As members of Mars Hill Bible Church, Alicia and her husband began financially supporting Affinity Mentoring, “We saw the benefit of putting resources into kids. We come from families where children are valued and celebrated.”

Three years ago she decided to become a mentor too. Alicia loves being in the Burton school and feels the sense of community she has longed for. Alicia was matched with Leidy, a shy, quiet, and smiley first grader. “She was hard to get out of her shell but we bonded over both wearing glasses.” After meeting weekly for three years Leidy has become more confident, giggly, and “happy-go-lucky.”

“She’s highly competitive and plays until she wins. Our last Uno game lasted 40 minutes. We went through the deck twice. Alicia loves being a mentor, “It makes me really happy. This is what I look forward to every week. Everything is scheduled around it. I truly love it.”

She enjoys the flexibility of the program to meet students where they are at. During times when Leidy was struggling with reading they started checking out books. They tried many popular children’s series, but neither of them were convinced, “I don’t know if you’ve ever read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, it’s not that good.” Finally they found it, “Leidy loves Penny Dreadful (Penelope Jones). It’s a mix of stories and pictures, it’s perfect for her level and keeps her attention.”

Alicia appreciates the resources and support from Affinity staff, “It’s more than just mentoring. There’s a social work aspect. They put [students] in touch with resources, bedding and household needs, and make sure [mentors] get resources. It’s encompassing the whole family, not just the child.”

Alicia and Leidy will be meeting over the summer. They already went shopping and out to lunch. Leidy got to choose. Her favorite restaurant is McDonald’s but decided to give Red Robin a try. Later in July Alicia is taking her to the zoo.

Alicia hopes to teach Leidy that, “She can do absolutely anything she wants to, regardless of where she comes from. We all know life is hard and teaches you tough lessons.”

Alicia encourages anyone thinking about becoming a mentor to “just do it” and shares 3 tips

  1. If you don’t know if you’ll be any good at it, you’ll be amazed what just being there once a week will do for both you and your mentee.
  2. It’s not parenting, you’re their friend.
  3. If you think you don’t have time, you do. You might not realize what you get out of it until you’re in it.

If you’d like to learn more about becoming a mentor like Alicia apply here or support a student by becoming a mentor sponsor.