Cait was looking for an opportunity to give back. She yearned for an opportunity to make her life more well rounded; to find a volunteer opportunity that fed her soul. She stumbled upon Affinity Mentoring in the tail end of 2019. Then the pandemic happened and starting something new was set aside, for the time being at least…
As the fog began to clear a bit in 2021 she reached back out to Affinity Mentoring.
“I was so nervous the first time I met my match,” recalls Cait. She remembers thinking, “I don’t have a ton of experience with kids!” Cait hadn’t done anything like mentoring before.
“I was so worried about being matched and not being able to click with my student, but Rocio does a really great job of pairing mentors with their mentees,” she says. “After our interview, Rocio knew exactly the kind of student I would pair well with. She read me like a book. She paired me with a high energy, creative girl and the match was perfect!”
Cait was matched with Merlyn, a spunky, chatty, and excitable 8 year old. “We’re both the middle of 5 children. During our mentoring time we talk a lot, read, make crafts, and play. Family is very important to her and she has a good support system. She enjoys lots of quality time with her mom.”
Her goal is to make space for Merlyn to express her authentic self without fear of being teased or mocked. Cait explains that mentoring can be a healing experience. She recalls being nicknamed “loud girl” in school. “I was hyper, loud, and weird. I want Merlyn to be able to have a safe space to be her authentic self.”
Learning about another culture has also been an added benefit. “It’s very eye opening, she’s learning two languages. Activities like reading together go a little differently than when I used to read with the boys I nannied in Ada.”
Whether it’s about her latest craft at her art table at home or stories of her ‘millions’ of cousins, Cait has found the key to mentoring – being present and listening.
“Mentoring is such a rewarding experience for both mentor and mentee. You can do so much good in such little time. I don’t think people realize how low of a time commitment mentoring can be and how easy it is to fit into your schedule. I hope more people look into mentoring,” she explains.
Although the mentoring commitment of one year has been completed, Cait will be returning this Fall to mentor Merlyn again. “I want it to be a long-time match. I want to be there, cheering, as Merlyn graduates high school.”
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.
MauraLamoreaux 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
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
*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.