GULFPORT—For many in high school, a few words of expert advice can sometimes make all the difference for a student's future success. At Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport, there is a dedicated group of volunteers willing to do just that.
Those volunteers are part of the Take Stock in Children Mentor Program, and Sander Myles works hard to ensure that group continues to grow.
Myles is the Family and Community Liaison for Boca Ciega High; she coordinates with the various groups in the mentoring program. She is responsible for the connections to help kids learn about the real world, and get a head start in life after graduation.
Take Stock in Children is a set of non-profit Florida academic programs, established in 1995, to help low-income and at-risk students.
A mixture of methods make up Take Stock, including local volunteering and mentoring. In the case of Boca Ciega High, the goal is to create effective connections—pairing students with career professionals, area residents and leaders.
Volunteers teach, offer advice and help students learn about the working world awaiting them after graduation. It can have a lasting impact on students out of high school and on their way to college and careers. Everyone comes together with a desire to make a difference in the student's lives.
"These are some beautiful relationships," says Myles. "I see it becoming more popular all the time."
Students in the program come from two groups—students with high-academic achievements in a group called "Doorways," and disadvantaged students considered "high-risk."
No matter where they come from, what each student has in common with the others is a chance to learn from the insight of mentors—attorneys, medical professionals and business executives. Myles keeps a running list of the students in both groups, acting as a sort of a matchmaker.
Myles' biggest task is to connect community members with students—she calls them "mentees"—in combinations where mentors can help the most. With a sense of good cheer, Myles has an eye for common interests. For example, she recently paired a student involved in Jr. ROTC with a mentor from the U.S. Army.
In the ways of mentoring, the program is very flexible. Topics of discussion and size of the meetings vary greatly—ranging from individual one-on-one connections, to one mentor working with a group of as many as 20 students. Meetings take place anywhere on school grounds.
"The library is popular," Myles says. "Some meet in my office. There is also the volunteer desk, with a computer they can use if they need one right away."
In addition to individual involvement, some of the larger organizations volunteering time at Boca Ciega High are the "Drive to Strive" program through Gulfport's Stetson College, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the National Trust for the Development of African-American Men, and Florida Blood Services. Many are local, but a few travel to Gulfport from Tampa.
Although the mentor program is very popular, Myles says there is constant need for more help.
"We put it every week in our news letter," Myles says. "We always need to put the call out for mentors."
Myles asks all interested community members to apply to become mentors at Boca Ciega High. The certification process includes a filling out a volunteer form and submitting to a background check through the Pinellas County School District. A two-hour training workshop is also required for certification, also provided by the district.
St. Petersburg-based Florida Blood Services is one of the largest local companies to be a part of Boca Ciega High's mentoring program.
According to Valerie Werner, director of Corporate Education and Training, Boca Ciega and FBS is a good match.
"They have the Center for Wellness and Medical Professions," says Werner, referring to Boca Ciega High's specialized medical magnet program. "It was a natural choice."
Werner says FBS employees have been Boca Ciega High mentors since the 2005-2006 school year.
"It was actually at the behest of the mayor (former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker)," says Werner. "It was originally part of the Mayors, Mentors and More program."
Werner's mission is to put the word out to the nearly 1,100 FBS employees, asking interested employees to share their career experiences with students. Volunteer numbers vary over time—from 13 to about 30—based on availability and ability to take the time away from work to help.
Every Wednesday, an FBS shuttle bus makes two separate trips to Boca Ciega and back, transporting mentors to meet with students. Some of them even go on the trip for their days off.
"We are pleased to give back to the community," Werner says. "FBS tries to get a cross-section of everyone."
Mentors have come from every level of the FBS organization—laboratory workers, supervisors, vice presidents, directors and even FBS CEO Don Doddridge.
"The student he (Doddridge) mentored stayed in contact with him after graduation," Werner says. "It's very admirable."
Werner says that employees will continue to mentor at Boca Ciega, even while FBS completes the process of a major merger, joining with two other Florida blood service centers.
The soon-to-be-completed merger—into a new company called OneBlood—will not stop the flow of mentors to help Boca Ciega High.
"We are pleased to continue with the mentor program at Boca Ciega," Werner says. "To share expertise, and help save lives."