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.

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.

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.

 

Program Alumna and Affinity Staff: Angela’s Story

Wearing her favorite pair of converse sneakers Angela lugs her rolly backpack up the last few steps. She loves school. A little timid and shy, but she absolutely loves reading. Her favorite book is Junie B. Jones is a Graduation Girl. She wants to do well in school, make her parents proud and their sacrifices worth it.

Program Alumna and Affinity Staff: Angela’s Story
By Rachel Humphreys

Holding hands, 8 year-old Angela and her 3 sisters quickly dart across the street and into the safety of Burton Elementary’s brick archway. Her long, dark pony tail swishes as she runs.

Wearing her favorite pair of converse sneakers Angela lugs her rolly backpack up the last few steps. She loves school. A little timid and shy, but she absolutely loves reading. Her favorite book is Junie B. Jones is a Graduation Girl. She wants to do well in school, make her parents proud and their sacrifices worth it.

Hard-working, strong, and supportive, Angela loves her parents. They emigrated from Mexico before she was born, in search of a better life and more opportunities. Her biggest wish is to spend more time with them. She doesn’t quite understand why they have to work so much.

Her parents leave for work each morning at 4am and get home after 7pm. They get home tired each day. As the second oldest, Angela takes care of her younger sisters – gets them ready for school, helps them with homework, and walks with them to and from school.

Her mom is always positive, despite even some of the most difficult times. She remembers one bitter-cold winter where they didn’t have heat. Angela and her sisters crawled in bed each night with their parents to keep warm. Her mom would nudge her dad and ask him to tell stories. They’d fall asleep laughing together.

Other days they didn’t have enough food. Angela would look forward to the the free lunches at school. She could see the pain in her mom’s eyes when she asked if there was anything to eat.  Her mom always found a way to make it work. Angela remembers waking up the next morning to warm tortas and chorizo con huevo.

A few months into second grade she meets Wendy. She’s tall with dark blonde hair. She hasn’t met many people that look like Wendy. She brings her a pink Snapple juice. Even though she’s unsure why she needs a mentor she starts to enjoy hanging out with Wendy.

Wendy has this way about her, “You just know she’s listening, like really listening.” It makes Angela feel important and more confident. Wendy comes each week to see her.

She helps her with homework and they read lots of Junie B. Jones stories, but mostly they just talk. Wendy loves to hear what Angela thinks, what she wants to do when she grows up, and answers her millions of questions. To Angela, Wendy has all of the answers.

At the end of the school year Angela and her family move. It’s hard being the new girl. Sometimes Angela gets teased for her dirty uniform. She only has one and can’t wash it every day. She’s often lonely, but seeing Wendy is a bright spot. Her new school doesn’t have in-school mentoring so Wendy starts visiting Angela and her family at their house.

At first Angela is a little hesitant to share her mentor with her sisters, but she realizes how much fun they all have together. Wendy comes over after school. While her mom makes dinner the girls and Wendy watch movies, giggle, and talk.

She has never met anyone as cool as Wendy, “I wanted to be like her. She made me want to be there for someone like she was there for me. She made me feel smart and like I could do anything. When there wasn’t enough food or we we didn’t have electricity I would forget about it when I was with Wendy.”

Fifteen years later Wendy and Angela still keep in touch. Angela and her family moved 6-7 times and Wendy moved to Chicago when Angela was in 7th grade. However, that didn’t stop either of them. Wendy is still one of Angela’s biggest role models, “I really appreciate her. Sometimes I feel lost and she helps me focus.”

“When the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ came out Wendy messaged me and told me I should see it. She said that I would love it because of how much I enjoy math. I couldn’t believe she remembered.”

Angela still enters those brick archways each week at Burton Elementary, but now for a different reason. She is the Program Assistant for Affinity Mentoring and the entrance of the old building has been renovated into Affinity’s Mentor Center. “After Burton was renovated everything looks so different, everything but the archways. It’s exactly as I remember it. I remember being in this school and now I get to help students like me.”

This fall Angela will be continuing her degree at Grand Valley State University. She plans to become a social worker. She wants to help the Hispanic community and families like hers to feel safe, loved, and supported. Like Wendy did for her.

To support more matches like Wendy and Angela you can sign up to become or a mentor or sponsor a mentor match.

Hear Angela’s story in her own words …

Program Alumna and Affinity Staff: Angela’s Story from Affinity Mentoring on Vimeo.