Meet Our Better Together Panelists!

Get a sneak peek of the mentors and students that will be sharing their experiences, stories, and favorite memories for Better Together Virtual! Watch our livestream video on Facebook [no account necessary] on April 29th at 6pm to experience Affinity and hear their full stories! For more information about the event visit: affinitymentoring.org/bettertogether/

Kortlyn Shoemaker is the Early Childhood Pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church where she oversees programming for all children 6 years old and under. Kortlyn and her dog Sir Winston moved to Grand Rapids 3 years ago from New York City. In addition to overseeing programs for young children, she also volunteers her time leading the Student Leadership Team for Mars Hill’s high school students, is a Bible study leader and a student at Mars Hill’s Formation School. In her free time, Kortlyn enjoys painting landscapes and abstract art, learning Italian, reading, frequenting many of Grand Rapids restaurants and cafes and traveling abroad. 

Yoselyn is 10 years old and in the 4th grade. Her favorite subject at school is Art. When she is not at school Yoselyn enjoys reading Junie B. Jones books, drawing and coloring, playing with her baby cousin and doing her dolls’ hair. Yoselyn lives in Grand Rapids with her mom, Suzy, and brother, Saul, who is also in the mentoring program. When Yoselyn grows up she wants to be a teacher.

Kortlyn and Yoselyn have been a match for three years and absolutely love spending time together. They have many things in common including their creativity, love of glitter, reading, laughing and their silly sense of humor.

Mitch Shooks is self-employed. He founded the GRIP Center, a private personal training gym in cascade in 2014, and has a team of 4 trainers. Mitch earned a degree in Exercise Science from Dordt College and he enjoys outdoor activities like biking, hiking and hunting. Mitch is a self-proclaimed “barely sane father” of 4 girls. He adds that his wife of 20 years is his anchor when dealing with his daughters

Saul is an energetic guy with a love for all things sports and fast cars. He loves jokes and finding humor in all places. He’s a very thoughtful young man and often brings Mitch small crafts he has made for him. They have been a match for 3 years.

Karina Zarate is an engineer for C2AE, she works in an integrated team to design various systems for public infrastructure, health care, education and manufacturing facilities. One of her projects is the new high school for Southwest Community Campus [SWCC]. Karina studied Architectural engineering, with an emphasis on electrical systems, in her hometown at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. She was recruited to Grand Rapids in 2013 and have become very connected since. Karina has a passion for her community, and often volunteers for opportunities to promote STEM to youth through the lens of interaction with the built environment. Because of the intersection of community and the built environment, she serves on the board of Family Promise, which helps families with children who are in housing crises. She is a member of the Latina Network, a coordinator of the Grand Rapids’ Project Pipeline Architecture Camp and serves as the Treasurer for EquityPAC. She became a mentor for Affinity this school year.

Liliana is formerly a student at Cesar Chavez Elementary, she is now a 4th grader in her first year at SWCC. The pair recently celebrated her 10th birthday over one of their weekly lunches. As a middle child, she plays the role of little sister and of a caring older sister. She is sweet, imaginative, and energetic. When they meet, Liliana enjoys sharing snacks, drawing, basketball, playing board games, practicing her English, and sharpening her math skills. There is never a dull moment with Liliana, because she can easily sneak in a game of rock paper scissors and hide and seek on the way to the lunch room or while waiting in the lunch line.

Angel Barreto-Cruz is a Membership Specialist at the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, Co-Founder of Loop Coding Center, and a student at Grand Valley State University. Angel is a proud GRPS graduate, in fact he attended Southwest Community Campus as a child! Angel is very active in the community – he is a member of the West Michigan Latino Network, board member for the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Grand Rapids, and  participant in the LEADERES leadership lab for Latinx professionals by Ferris State University.

Dylan is a very outgoing and thoughtful 4th grader. He loves to play board games and play outside. Together, he and Angel play battleship, read together, and practice English.

Maura + Analia

Maura Lamoreaux is thrilled to be in her fifth year of mentoring with Affinity! Currently the communications manager for the Kent County Road Commission, Maura previously served as communications officer for the Yonkers Public Schools, the fourth largest school district in the State of New York. Maura received a bachelor’s degree in Communications from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree in Corporate Communication from Baruch College of the City University of New York. She also attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and currently sings with the rock band, Signal Trip. Maura and her husband, Jason, are the proud parents of daughter, Shea.

Analia is an outgoing 4th grader at Southwest Community Campus. This is her first year in the mentoring program and likes learning new games with Maura. Analia is working on building her confidence and practicing her English.

Teri is self-employed and works with the Red Cross. In addition, she is a wellness consultant, disability advocate, and diversity and inclusion presenter. She loves to be active and get outdoors, especially hiking and paddle-boarding. She and her husband have two children. Eleven years ago she became Lizbeth’s mentor – Lizbeth was just five years old and in the first grade!

Lizbeth is the oldest child in her family and has two younger sisters. Perhaps this is the reason for her maturity and helpful nature. She is very giving and loves to see those around her smiling. She has a very artistic side and is a very gifted musician and has a beautiful voice! Liz is a great dancer and has done performances with her friends. She also has a fun and sweet personality and a wonderful sense of maturity. Navigating through high school can be daunting, but Liz is persevering and her teachers all adore her. Her faith is vital in her life and she leans of God for direction and purpose when she’s feeling down. Liz has a good head on her shoulders and lots of love in her heart. She makes the world a better place for those that love and know her! 

Lizbeth and I met at Burton elementary on our first day of mentoring. She was a bright eyed five year old first grader and although my Spanish was non-existent, we did a lot of smiling and pointing at pictures to communicate that day. Fast forward 11 years and it’s like we’ve always known one another. Our families bonded and so have our hearts. We’ve done a lot of life together like holidays, birthday’s, special outings, cookie baking and beach hikes. I appreciate her more than words can say. Life isn’t always easy and sometimes busyness gets in the way, but at the end of the day I am very thankful for our special connection that can never be broken.” – Teri

Join Us Live!

Date: Wednesday, April 29, 2020
Tune In: [Facebook Livestream] begins at 6pm [Facebook account is not required]
Location: Your home computer or cell phone
Cost: Free to participate [we are accepting sponsorships and donations]

RSVP ON FACEBOOK


Every year, Better Together raises over $40,000 in vital support for our students. Please join us for Better Together Virtual to hear how your support is helping us serve students and their families during this crisis and throughout the year. 

Ready to make your commitment now? Donate now.

Mentor Story: Cindy + Nicole

By Rachel Humphreys

“When I think of Cindy, I think of a second mom. Mentoring had a huge impact on my life.” 

Nicole was a shy and quiet 3rd grader at Burton Elementary, waiting for a mentor. Cindy was a member of Mars Hill Bible Church, involved in children’s ministry, and her oldest had just graduated high school when she heard about the need for mentors. Although she had never been a formal mentor before, she thought “That’s something I can do.” 

Nicole and Cindy began meeting over the lunch hour. Nicole fondly remembers, “I’d be so excited every week. I’d get to miss class, meet with Cindy, play basketball, and eat McDonalds. I loved it.”

13 years later, Nicole and Cindy are back at Burton Elementary. Nicole smiles as they walk the halls, remembering various classrooms and teachers. Cindy looks up to Nicole, “I don’t remember you being this tall,” she teases. Cindy has journeyed alongside Nicole long past their formal mentoring days and has had the opportunity to see her grow into a strong, adventurous, and brave young woman. Even after Nicole transferred to another school district they remained close. “We committed to each other and built a good relationship,” explains Cindy. More than a decade later they still text, meet to catch up, and connect via social media.

Leaning over a table in the library, the pair laugh like old friends swapping photos – remembering squinty graduation poses, Steak ‘ Shake dates, prom dresses, and their first year of mentoring. “It was really nice to have her there. She was always there for me for a lot of milestones – basketball, graduation, birthdays, prom – just like another family member celebrating with me,” says Nicole.

Every birthday Cindy would take Nicole to Chuck E Cheese to celebrate and she attended as many of Nicole’s basketball and softball games as possible. Nicole was included in many of Cindy’s family events too, like school plays, church, and sport outings. 

“Mentoring is not hard when you have someone like Nicole. However, you don’t necessarily see the effect of it and are unsure if you’re making any difference,” explains Cindy. Although she didn’t know it, Cindy helped shape Nicole’s future path.

“Cindy being my mentor definitely had a huge impact on me. She helped me get out of my shy phase and she helped me find my passion for aviation. I used to want to be a veterinarian, but one summer Cindy helped me get into Grand Valley State University’s STEPS (Science, Technology, Engineering, Preview Summer) Camp.” 

“I love getting my hands dirty, using wrenches, and ratchets. After that STEPS Camp I fell in love with aviation and knew that’s what I wanted to do. I love to just put on my safety glasses and do my thing. It brings me so much joy. Some people my age are still trying to figure out what they want to do; I figured it out in 6th grade thanks to Cindy.”

Once she locked onto her dream, Nicole pursued it with a passion. She took two years of aviation maintenance at Kent County Technical Center (KCTC), earned her Associates Degree in Applied Science at Lansing Community College, and received additional certifications in specialty areas including: general, airframe and powerplant aviation. Listening to Nicole describe her school and excitement for her new job Cindy beams, “I am so proud of her. She’s increased her confidence and I won’t take credit for that. Her mom is so involved, works really hard, and sets a great example.”

Over the past decade Nicole has discovered her passion and strength. Choosing to work in a male-dominated field, she has found herself being the only female in the majority of her aviation classes. “I’m used to it. I’m not worried about handling them,” she laughs confidently. Keeping in line with her adventurous side, Nicole recently relocated to Illinois for a new job. “As an aircraft structural mechanic I’ll be working on commercial aircrafts for Boeing. I’m anxious, but ready to work and I know I’m going to love it,” she beams. 

“Mentoring is such a great opportunity. Not all 3rd graders might think of it like that, but it’s definitely worth it for every student that has the opportunity to try,” says Nicole.

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If you’d like to make an impact like Cindy, sign up to mentor here OR if you would like to make a small monthly donation to support students like Nicole, give here.

Mentor Story: James + Jerry

By Rachel Humphreys

James [left] and Jerry [right] during a Friday mentoring session.

Sitting outside the Mentor Center at Burton Elementary, James and Jerry are intently working on an i-Pad. A victory sound chimes, Jerry eagerly turns to James with a huge grin and begins a celebratory dance in his chair. James congratulates Jerry on completing Level 8, a challenging activity to master “Silent E” (an activity assigned to the match by Jerry’s second grade teacher, Ms. Almanza).

The two are in their second year of mentoring. Jerry is cheerful, funny, and talkative. His mom, Blanca, enrolled him in the program because she wanted him to have a mentor to help him build confidence in speaking and have a positive role model.    

James works at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) and heard about the opportunity to mentor through his colleague, Jason Loepp. Jason leads the BCBSM partnership, is an Affinity board member, and has been a mentor for the past 5 years. After learning about James’ background in nonprofit management, after-school programming, and love for the community he encouraged him to apply.


Jason Loepp and James Peterson accept Affinity’s 2019 Priceless Partner Award on behalf of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

“It’s the highlight of my week,” explains James. “After a long work week, I look forward to our Friday mentoring sessions to share jokes and laugh,” he smiles. James is originally from the Lansing area and spent several years working in Detroit through MSU Extension. He and his wife, Samantha, moved to Grand Rapids a few years ago to work for BCBSM. The community partnership with Affinity made it easy for him to participate, “BCBSM gives volunteer hours. They are very open to volunteerism and being part of the community. I just had to let leadership know.”

Jerry’s favorite thing to do together is read the “Fly Guy Series” (if you’re unfamiliar with what kids are reading these days, this popular series follows the adventures of a kid, Buzz, and his pet fly, Fly Guy, as they navigate daily life challenges). Jerry and James are often found in heated (yet playful) debates on which one of them is more like Buzz or Fly Guy. 

James and Jerry have strengthened their friendship over the last two school years. “I see his confidence and best-self coming out. We play a lot of soccer, read books, and we work through things when he’s upset, often talking about Fly Guy,” says James.

With two young children of his own and full-time job, James is very intentional about making time for mentoring each week, “My job is chaotic, but I just make it work. When I’m here I make sure I’m present in the moment and attentive. I shut everything else out.”

James appreciates the staff support and says, “It’s been really helpful. Rocio does a great job of letting me know if Jerry and his family are coming to an event or if I miss a progress report.” This year his goal is to get Jerry more engaged in the mentoring events that happen. 

“We’re always working together,” explains Jerry. “He helps me learn new words.” He describes James as “nice, helpful, and kind” and he looks forward to his weekly mentoring. Jerry says, “If we stopped meeting I would feel sad. I was waiting for like a year to have a mentor. I feel really happy together. It’s a lot of fun.”

If you’d like to learn more about becoming a community partner, click here, or support matches like Jerry and James by making a small monthly donation.

A Tale of Two Mothers: Debbie + Victoria

By Rachel Humphreys

Debbie, a kind and gentle soul, has been mentoring students for the past decade. She heard about the opportunity through one of Affinity’s partners, Mars Hill Bible Church. “I liked the one-on-one program where you invest in long-term relationships, build trust, and watch them grow.”

Debbie recalls the first few weeks of mentoring, “I was nervous about helping with school stuff and getting more immediate results. Then I realized it’s more of an investment of one hour at a time, it’s building the relationship and the foundation a bit more each visit.”

Victoria, a compassionate and loving person, has four daughters, including Stephanie and Emelinda who have both been part of the mentoring program. She remembers first hearing about the program when Emelinda came home from Kindergarten saying, “Mami, quiero un mentor.” She helped her sign up, however, Victoria never realized what this relationship would blossom into or how their two families would intertwine. 

Emelinda was soon matched with Debbie. Victoria describes Debbie as someone with a huge heart that loves working with kids. She recalls Debbie always being at every event. After a bit of time together, she saw her shy and quiet daughter come out of her shell and become more confident. Emelinda started to play more, talk more, paint, and improve her English.

“[They’re] my surrogate family,” smiles Debbie. “Her mom and I have the same birthday and we always text each other. They are a really nice family that supports each other. I’m glad I can be a part of it and that they trust me.” Victoria agrees, “God put her in our path, she is part of our family and my daughters are really happy with her. Every time our birthday comes around we ask each other – so where are we going to celebrate?”

“Debbie gives good advice, like another mother, to my daughters, but also to me. She tells me I’m doing a good job, to be patient, and not to worry because I’m a good mom. No one has ever told me that before, not even my own mother. I don’t know whether she is like another mother to my daughters, or to me,” explains Victoria.

After Emelinda and Debbie had been a match for 6 years, it was coming to a close. Emelinda was entering middle school and yearning to spend more time with friends. Debbie and Victoria both felt the change and comforted each other as they saw her pull away, not wanting to talk, and becoming more distant. Debbie wasn’t sure what to do. However, after talking to Affinity staff member, Laura Ward, she helped her understand that she was no longer in need of a mentor and that was OK. Being a mom herself, it finally clicked and she understood not to take it personally, “I thought to myself, ‘I know that age.’”

Victoria remembers, “When [Emelinda] was done with the program I was worried about losing the relationship with Debbie. No one was going to be there helping me, telling me I’m doing a good job. We both cried. I knew, she too, was sad in her heart. We started texting each other. She helped me understand girls go through their changes differently. She kept telling me to be strong, and she would help me. I would repeat it to myself over and over.”

Debbie sees the role of a mentor as an encourager. “I always tell Emelinda ‘You’re so smart, creative, generous, and amazing.’ Later I would hear her repeat it, ‘You know, I am pretty smart and creative.’” Victoria started to feel more confident too, “Now there were two people [Debbie] and I sending Emelinda messages and reinforcing the same thing.”

One day, there was a big surprise for Victoria, “I got her off the bus and she was happy, smiling and said ‘¡Hola Mami!’ and grabbed my hand. Later that evening I sat between my four girls asking them about school.” Emelinda went last, “‘¿Mami, tienes la oportunidad de hablar?’ It was a huge surprise, we talked for over an hour. She recalled Debbie’s talks about how middle school is so different and Emelinda was surprised that everything she said would happen, did.” Afterward they both hugged and finally, turned a corner in their mother-daughter relationship. The first thing Victoria wanted to do was to let Debbie know that she’s going to be OK.

As fate would have it, Emelinda’s younger sister, Stephanie, had been in the mentoring program too. However, due to life circumstances her mentor, Marla, had to leave after a year and Stephanie was devastated. However, Affinity’s Burton site coordinator, Rocio Moreno, recognized this as a great opportunity to bring the two families together again. She reached out to Debbie and Victoria both to see how they felt about matching Debbie with Stephanie – they both wholeheartedly said yes. 

Growing up, Stephanie had known Debbie and attended events with her older sister and Debbie. When Stephanie learned that Debbie would now be HER mentor, she  started jumping around and was so happy. Victoria says, “Now I don’t have to worry about when they are together. I trust her. She is a huge help to my daughters and they have so much fun together.” 

Victoria is a big advocate for mentoring and has already been referring other parents to the program, “Mentors help with the things you can’t teach as a mom or dad. They can play soccer, do different activities, if your kid likes something that you don’t the mentor can do it with them. It’s a whole new experience – for the whole family.”



Ready to start your own journey? Become a Mentor or Sponsor a Mentor Match




*Editor’s Note* As most Affinity’s blog articles are captured, I had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Debbie and Victoria to hear their story. Victoria’s interview was in Spanish and Debbie’s in English. Neither one speaks the other language. One of the most remarkable things about their relationships is that despite their language barrier, they have developed this deep, lifelong bond. Our team is honored to have the opportunity to play a role in these two families’ journeys and support where we can in cultivating meaningful relationships and experiences.

Eliano + Rafael’s Story

What do a Legal Specialist and a 2nd grader have in common? Surprisingly, quite a bit.

Once a week, Rafael and Eliano stroll through the Mentor Center and Media Center, scoping out a good spot to eat their lunch. They giggle to each other and finish each other’s sentences as they recall past mentoring sessions.

Today, they found an open table in the Media Center. As Eliano bites into his fried chicken Rafael pulls out a bag of chips. “Oh! Is that the same kind we had last week?!” exclaims Eliano.

Eliano + Rafael

They started meeting this past fall and it’s become their weekly tradition to share their lunches. For Rafael, mentoring is a fun way to spend his lunch hour, “I have to eat anyways so it’s a nice break from my norm. The hardest part is getting there, once I’m there it’s easy.”

Eliano explains, “I wanted a mentor because it seemed fun. My brother, Henry, has a mentor and he said we can do anything!” Right now his favorite mentoring activity is playing money games with Rafael. “[Eliano] does the scoring, so he wins a lot,” laughs Rafael. They’re looking forward to more sunshine and being able to play soccer outside.

Rafael describes Eliano as an energetic, smiley, and happy kid, “Whenever I see him, he’s so full of energy. We read together. We talk about things like which superpowers we’d pick and we like to ask each other a lot of questions to get to know each other.”

Eliano thinks of Rafael as his friend, “I feel really happy when we hang out.” He thinks things would be very different without his weekly lunches with Rafael, “I would be sad, really sad. We’re friends.”

Affinity presenting to the West Michigan Latino Network | Fall 2018
Gregorio de Leon sharing his experiences being a mentor with the West Michigan Latino Network | Fall 2018

“We usually eat together, play a game, then we just hang out,” says Rafael. Rafael is involved in the local Latino community and is part of the West Michigan Latino Network’s (WMLN) leadership team. He decided to become a mentor after hearing a presentation from Affinity Mentoring at one of their meetings last fall, “I listened to members of the network, well-respected community members, and a mentor share his experience with the program. It inspired me to sign up.”

What Rafael and Eliano didn’t know at the time was that it was the Henry’s (Eliano’s brother) mentor, Gregorio, who shared his experience as a mentor with the WMLN and it was his excitement that inspired Rafael to become a mentor… So essentially Henry recruited his little brother to get a mentor and his mentor, Gregorio, recruited who would become Eliano’s mentor.

Gregorio + Henry (Eliano’s older brother)

“I would encourage folks to do it. I would stress how easy it is once you get it. Monica [SWCC Site Coordinator] makes it so easy [Eliano nods] and I get to hang out with Eliano for an hour,” explains Rafael.

What does Eliano think? “I would tell [students] to get one. I know they really want one.”

If you, or someone you know, would like to learn more about becoming a mentor contact info@affinitymentoring.org or click here >

We are always in need of more mentors, but especially male mentors!

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.

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, Donor, and Partner: David’s Story

Mentor, Donor, and Partner: David’s Story
By Rachel Lopez

“Richy has a soft heart, a real soft heart. I love this kid,” smiles Dave. Over the past 7 years they have developed a deep bond, “We did a little bit of academics and a lot of playing – he’s a pretty self-motivated kid. He’s probably better at math than I am,” he laughs. Dave has gone to a lot of Richard’s family events, and Dave invited him to his daughter’s wedding this summer.

On the books their mentorship ended in 2016 when Richard, transferred to City Middle School. However, they’ve remained close, “We still keep in touch. I see him 4-5 times each year.” Now an 8th grader, Richy is starting to think more about college, “I’m looking forward to helping him navigate his college aspirations. I told him him when he graduates college I’ll take him to any soccer game in the world.”

Dave has worked at Gordon Food Service (GFS) for 27 years. Over the years he has been a mentor, donor, and partner. Originally Dave, heard about the opportunity to become a mentor and jumped at it. Later on he began recruiting more GFS employees too, “It started with info sessions, but it’s a cool community here. There are lots of hearts to serve so it wasn’t hard to get mentors.”

No longer a formal mentor, he sees himself as an advocate for Affinity Mentoring, “I don’t mind getting people in touch with senior leadership. It’s a ministry I believe in and want to support. I know it takes money to run and support the staff. I want to see [Affinity] be maintained and grow.”

He had a vision to grow the partnership. He brought the idea to Cliff Charles [the former Director of Diversity and Inclusion at GFS] and asked if he could “provide the horsepower to do it.” The team along with passionate mentors, like Will Holland, ran with it.

The partnership with GFS now boasts over 60 mentors and it’s still growing, “Our [company] culture is reflective of our values. [Affinity Mentoring] ties in closely with the values of GFS – the Gordons are an amazing family, there are hearts to serve at various levels.”

Contact us if you’re interested in becoming a mentor or starting a partnership with your organization.