Long Beach BLAST illustrates the power of academic mentoring

Nancy Connor, executive director of Long Beach BLAST (Better Learning for All Students Today), can easily rattle of the benefits of academic mentoring for an at-risk youth. Self-esteem goes up. Grades soar. Hope is found – sometimes for the first time.

But she is also quick to point out the “ripple” effect.

“Our academic mentors often get more out of the relationship than the mentees,” said Connor. “I see college students come into our program and volunteer – sometimes for the first time in their lives. They are amazed by the difference they can make with a child when they offer their time and open their hearts to a younger student they meet.”

Each semester, the team at Long Beach BLAST quickly and strategically assembles an estimated 250 to 300 mentor and mentee relationships (1:1), matching students from California State University Long Beach, California State University Dominguez Hills, Long Beach City College and Los Angeles Harbor College with at-risk youth in Long Beach schools.

“It’s a pretty intense screening process,” said Michelle Olmstead, BLAST’s volunteer program coordinator. “We start by visiting college classrooms early in the semester to educate students about BLAST, bring new volunteers through the application, screening and training process, and then ultimately match the college students with a student who may be struggling academically, pressured by gang involvement and living at or under the poverty level.”

Simultaneously, BLAST partners with the Long Beach Unified School District, including their principals, counselors and teachers, to identify young students who could benefit from an academic mentor. Help could come in the form of tutoring, teaching organizational skills or simply offering a role model to chat with about how to apply to college or get a job.

After college-student volunteers complete a background check, are medically cleared and attend a three-hour training facilitated by the BLAST staff – all in a matter of three to four weeks – they are matched and ready to begin. Mentors connect with their mentees for at least a semester, either in the classroom or at approved after-school programs located throughout Long Beach.

While some college students are drawn to the BLAST organization for community service hours or a particular college class requirement, many exit the experience with a new appreciation for volunteering.

Lucy Chairez, now a BLAST employee, started her academic mentoring journey with the Long Beach nonprofit in 2012 as a student at Long Beach City College. Partnered with a 17-year-old Will J. Reid High School student, Chairez initially focused her attention on helping with homework and tutoring, but the mentor-mentee team quickly found a deeper connection. In fact, Chairez signed up to continue mentoring the same student for a second semester and was able to see her through high school graduation.

“Now that she’s 18, we keep in touch, grab coffee and just talk about life in general,” said Chairez. “I just helped her select books for her next semester at Long Beach City College, and she often asks me to look over assignments for a second opinion.”

Today, BLAST continues its journey, operating two core programs: The Academic Mentoring Program, and the Bridge to Success Program, are both designed to support students’ immediate academic needs and future aspirations.

“We’d love to evolve to offer select students the option to do more long-term mentoring,” said Leslie Keeney, BLAST Program Manager. “We are so fortunate to have such amazing college students from the Long Beach community to help these young students. They are strong, education-driven role models, and to many of our students, they instill hope for a brighter future.”

BLAST is accepting contributions for its 2014 year-end giving campaign, which will directly support the Academic Mentoring Program and Bridge to Success Program. Please visit www.lbblast.org and click “Donate to BLAST” under “Support our Cause”.

To learn more about BLAST, visit www.lbblast.org or call 562-437-7766.