United Way still has slots to fill for middle school mentors

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Every Tuesday, Jason D'Amico and eight of his colleagues at law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney take a late lunch.

Around 1 p.m., the group of lawyers, paralegals and administrative staff pile into a couple cars and head from their Downtown office to Arsenal Middle School in Lawrenceville, where they spend the lunch hour with sixth-grade students whom they will mentor through the end of the school year.

The students and professionals eat lunch together, play get-acquainted games and spend at least a half-hour chatting about educational and career opportunities that exist beyond the school's walls.

No iPads or smartphones allowed.

For the students -- many of whom are from single-parent homes -- this "is about really connecting on a personal level and modeling behavior of people in the outside world," said Mr. D'Amico, who recruited members of his firm to become involved with "Be a Middle School Mentor," a program managed by the United Way of Allegheny County.

While the initiative has been successful in raising funds from foundations, corporations and other sources since its launch in 2009, this year it's short on mentors to pair with middle school students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Earlier this week, the program still had about 40 slots to fill, said Damon Bethea, mentoring project director for the United Way. "Our goal is to have 400 mentors overall in grades 6-8," he said.

Funding for the current school year includes $228,000 from the United Way Impact Fund; $250,000 from the Heinz Endowments; $125,000 from First Niagara Bank; $25,000 from United Way Worldwide; $20,000 from the Alcoa Foundation; $10,000 from the Gott Family Foundation; and $5,000 from the Simpson Family Foundation.

An underlying aim of the program is to help prepare students in the city's middle schools to qualify for Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship funds when they are in high school, said Mr. Bethea.

"We want to promote Promise-readiness in the middle school years." Specifically, to be eligible for the scholarships -- up to $40,000 per individual over four years -- students need to shape their study habits and meet attendance requirements, he said.

"Mentors can talk to them about how to study, be more organized and determine the best high school for them to attend."

Mentors involved in the program come from businesses, churches and even the Pittsburgh Public Schools' central office staff, said Mr. Bethea.

Because individuals donate their time, program funds are used for materials; field trips to local sites such as the National Aviary and Carnegie Science Center; and to pay for the government clearances required for anyone who volunteers in schools. Arsenal is one of 12 city schools participating.

Another group of nine Buchanan attorneys and staff volunteer on Wednesdays as mentors at Pittsburgh Schiller 6-8 on the North Side.

Mr. D'Amico, 42, learned about the mentorship initiative last spring and pitched it to his colleagues based on a good experience he had a decade ago in a similar program.

"When I did that, the young man I worked with told me what he got out of it mostly was how I related to my colleagues and what it meant to be mature."

This school year, Big Brothers Big Sisters is partnering on a mentorship project with the local operations of three companies: BNY Mellon, Comcast and American Eagle Outfitters.

For that program, the students travel to the workplaces to gain insight about careers at those businesses and what types of education degrees are required to work at those companies, said Jan Glick, chief executive of the local Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.

Students from Urban Pathways 6-12 are matched with BNY Mellon, students from Sto-Rox visit Comcast, and students from Pittsburgh Arlington 3-8 are paired with employees at American Eagle.

"It just gives them exposure and generates excitement," Ms. Glick said. "It's about choices and staying in school."

To volunteer for the United Way mentorship initiative, go to www.beamiddleschoolmentor.org.

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.

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