United Way program attracts hundreds as mentors

By Bill Fallon

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The Mentoring Institute of Coastal Fairfield County does not mentor, per se. It guides and supports the efforts of 14 regional mentoring efforts as an umbrella program, working with recruitment and acting as a conduit for best practices.

Founded in 2008, the institute is a program of United Way of Coastal Fairfield County, which adds to the program’s clout via United Way’s 128-year-old local roots, its access to oak-doored offices and its estimable name recognition. To date the Mentoring Institute has attracted about 600 mentors.

“There is more power in collaboration than with institutions standing alone,” said Merle Berke-Schlessel, in her 14th year as president and CEO of the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County. She is a University of Bridgeport Law School graduate and former state administrative law judge who, in private practice, served as counsel in the public and private sectors.

From left, Merle Berke-Schlessel, Cathy Greco and Donna Pfrommer at United Way of Coastal Fairfield County headquarters in Bridgeport. Photo by Bill Fallon
From left, Merle Berke-Schlessel, Cathy Greco and Donna Pfrommer at United Way of Coastal Fairfield County headquarters in Bridgeport. Photo by Bill Fallon

The name, United Way, is part of the equation for the seven-year-old program.

“We’ve got a big brand and we’re able to raise the value of mentoring through the strength of our brand,” Berke-Schlessel said. “We don’t run mentoring programs; we shine a bright light on them. We enable other organizations to reach out to mentors in corporations, in municipalities and in the community.” Such outreach likely includes testimonials from both mentors and mentees.

Mentoring Institute successes include enlisting the municipal leaders of Norwalk, Bridgeport, Trumbull, Monroe and Stratford for the cause.

In a January “National Mentoring Month” letter, Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling praised extracurricular activities and their results. “I have to add, though,” he said, “that there is no substitute in a child’s life for consistent, positive relationships with stable adults who spend time with them and listen to them – and the more such adults, the better. Parents are key, but others are also necessary, especially when families are facing challenges and could use a little help.”

Monroe First Selectman Steve Vavrek noted in a recent op-ed submission carried by a number of regional newspapers that United Way of Coastal Fairfield County serves 12 towns in Fairfield County, including his.

In addition to, in his words, “changing the odds for children,” Vavrek said, “Adults who mentor a young person often report feeling good about making a difference in the life of a child and feel they get the same, if not more, out of the mentoring relationship.”

Berke-Schlessel said of the elected officials, “They’ve put politics aside; they’re really rolling up their sleeves.”

Students involved in the program have found themselves mentored by businesspeople, doctors, engineers and architects. Mentee numbers are difficult to quantify, in part owing to the fluid movement of mentees into and out of the program, but Berke-Schlessel said, “There is plenty of data to show the kids who are mentored achieve higher-level outcomes than those who are not.”

The United Way of Coastal Fairfield County has a staff of 14, including Donna Pfrommer, executive vice president for brand management and volunteer engagement, who agreed with Vavrek, saying, “Some mentors tell us they get even more out of it than the mentees. They’re being modest about their contributions, but that’s the way they feel.”

“The mentors love it,” said Cathy Greco, United Way of Coastal Fairfield County’s executive vice president for resource development. She said mentors gain personally, they become “shining examples” in their companies and the companies get their names out in a positive fashion. “It’s a win-win for everybody,” she said.

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About the author

Bill Fallon
Bill Fallon is editor of the Fairfield County Business Journal. He has worked at Westfair Communications for more than five years, previously editing an upstate New York daily and a national motorcycle magazine in Nevada. He attended Iona Prep in New Rochelle, N.Y., and the University of Virginia.

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