The Rotary Club of Buffalo celebrated 20 years of mentoring at Lorraine Elementary on January 26 with a bagged lunch and tour of the newly renovated South Buffalo public school. The anniversary celebration included an invocation by 15-year-old Aaron Sylvia, an eighth grader who has been mentored by Rotarian Mike Woods for the past five years.
“As we celebrate 20 years of mentoring at Lorraine Elementary and 20 years of our partnership with Rotary, we think about our mentors who have made such a difference in our lives, and we are thankful,” said Sylvia. “Our mentors have encouraged us to stay in school and always try to do our best. They’re our heroes. Thank you, Mike, for always being there for me.”
Nearly 20 Rotarians are mentors at Lorraine Elementary, a PK-8 school that reopened in September 2011 after undergoing a $13 million renovation. Lorraine has partnerships with neighboring Trocaire College, Buffalo State College, the University at Buffalo and Roswell Park Cancer Institute to help its some 610 students explore medical careers as part of their studies. It also is a “closing the gap” school, which allows outside agencies to provide services to students and their families.
“In its report card, the state identified the school as being in need of improvement in our ELA (English and language arts) work with children with disabilities,” said Principal Jacquelyn Bavaro-Phelan. “It wasn’t something we wanted to hear, but from something negative, many positive things have evolved.” Bavaro-Phelen said Lorraine now has an afterschool program, it is looking into what mental health services can be brought into the school very shortly to work with families and it is one of seven district schools piloting a new attendance initiative aimed at reducing chronic absenteeism.
“It’s obvious, listening to the principal talk today, that education and teaching are much more than reading, writing and arithmetic,” said Rotary Club of Buffalo President Ron Caruso. “Just the challenges they face in life are so much more complex, which comes down on the teaching profession to answer more questions and address more issues than ever before. The mentoring system that we have with this school gives students an outlet, someone to talk to, in a more informal environment and to continue the learning process.”
“Some of our children come from single-parent homes or live in foster care. Some are academically at risk and are capable, but just need that little extra boost and support,” said Mentor Coordinator Cindy Nalewajek. “So the Rotarian mentoring has been a real positive thing around here. The program has just been wonderful.”
The Rotary Club of Buffalo began its mentoring program in 1992 and officially adopted Lorraine Elementary in 1995. In 1999, the Club donated $40,000 to the school to construct a new courtyard.
Nalewajek said students are matched with mentors based upon teacher recommendations, parent requests and student requests. Mentors are required to spend at least 45 minutes per week with a student, but many Rotarians end up developing life-long friendships.
Dwayne McDuffie was 13 years old when Rotarian Paul Marzello began mentoring him. Now age 31, with a wife and two-year-old daughter, McDuffie returned to his alma mater to publicly thank Marzello for the relationship that is “still going strong.”
“He continues to make a real difference in my life,” said McDuffie. “I have been active and involved in a lot of different things that my mentor encouraged, and I appreciate what that takes and all the time he put into me to be successful in life.”
“I get a sense of satisfaction working with these youngsters, trying to encourage them both academically and socially,” said Rotarian Jack Karet, who has been mentoring a fifth grader for the past year and a half. Karet said sometimes he is the student. “It’s interesting to meet these youngsters. I’m learning a lot about what young people are doing today, their likes and dislikes. (My mentee) taught me how to use a computer.”
Rotarian Michelle Longley-Helles got involved because of her love for children. Although it has taken some time to build a relationship with the third grader she has mentored for the past three years, Longley-Helles said she hopes the relationship continues through his school years.
“We do a lot of reading, play little games, and sometimes create our own stories. I just love spending every Monday with him,” said Longley-Helles. “To go from a hectic, crazy day at work to spend some time with an eight-year-old brings me peace and makes him happy. I actually miss him when we’re not together.”
Rotarian Tony Diina mentors four young men of different ages and said it has been one of the most rewarding charitable things he has ever done. “It’s really a great reward to see these kids grow and get some experiences that they might not otherwise encounter,” said Diina. “I’ve become close with all of the kids. They’re like my extended family.”
Diina said he recently got a “great report” that one of his students who was borderline at-risk is now doing well in a two-year college, but he admits mentoring can sometimes be an uphill battle.
“There were some disappointments along the way. You can’t win them all,” said Diina. “But we know we’ve made our quality of life better and their quality of life better. You begin to appreciate things you took for granted in your upbringing, breaks that some of these kids haven’t had. If we can help someone else succeed, it’s a good thing to do.”
Lorraine’s mentoring organizational team includes Principal Jacquelyn Bavaro-Phelan, Assistant Principal Kathy Ort, Mentoring Coordinator Cindy Nalewajek, teachers Kate Blandin, Marj Jakiel and Dawn LaMendola, librarian Patrick Kearns and Rotarians Deann Sheppard and Paul Marzello. Mentors include Rotarians Laurie Albertsson, Ron Canestro, Kelly Catanzaro, Tony Diina, Michelle Longley-Helles, Joyce Kaiser, Jack Karet, Stan Kaznowski, Donna Orlando-Martin, Sister Marian Mullen, Ed Rath, Florence Sampson, Matt Spencer, Tom Van Nortwick, Lori White and Mike Woods. Rotarians who are Lorraine Elementary alumni include Bill Cotter (one of the original mentors in 1992), Bernie O’Donnell and Deann Sheppard.
The mission of Rotary Club of Buffalo is to provide fellowship and networking opportunities for business, professional and community leaders, to provide service to the community, to promote high ethical standards and to advance world understanding, goodwill and peace. In 2010, Rotary Club of Buffalo officially marked 100 years of service to Buffalo, with 150 current active members serving the local and international communities. In addition to distributing many one-time grants, Rotary Club of Buffalo has contributed to such significant projects as the founding of the Boy’s and Girl’s Club (1926); establishing Sunshine Day at Cradle Beach (1945); Rotary Lane next to Mirror Lake (now Hoyt Lake) in Delaware Park; Rotary Rink in Fountain Plaza; Rotary Park next to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fontana Boathouse (for which Buffalo Rotary was a large contributor) and installing the 100-foot-high Rotary Flagpole with 30’ x 60’ flag at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park in downtown Buffalo. Rotary Club of Buffalo is part of Rotary International, a worldwide organization founded in 1905 in Chicago. Approximately 1.2 million Rotarians belong to more than 33,000 clubs in 200 countries and geographical areas. Rotary Club of Buffalo was the 28th club in the world. For more information about Rotary Club of Buffalo, visit www.buffalorotary.org.