Mentor Center Helps Businesses Give Back. January is National Mentoring Month.

Story Highlights

By Kevin Allen

It might have been a teacher. Or a colleague. Or a friend. Someone who helped point the way and make the difference in achieving the success in our lives.

A more formal term is mentor. And it is the mission of the newly created Mentor Center to make sure that everyone in Gainesville, from student to entrepreneur, can have one.

The center, which started operation in June, is an initiative of the Gainesville Community Foundation and was initially funded with a donation from the Cade family (as in Dr. Robert Cade, who lead the team that created of Gatorade). The center works with community partners such as Innovation Gainesville, the University of Florida and Santa Fe College, the Chamber of Commerce, Boys and Girls Clubs of Alachua County and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, among others, to help with recruitment, screening and training of would-be mentors.  It also helps determine the various needs of those agencies in the mentoring area.

The center is using events during National Mentoring Month to raise awareness of the need for mentors in the community, and their role in keeping the community connected.

Coordinating all this is Jennifer Tragash, the Mentor Center director. A Gainesville native with a background in special education, Tragash came to the center from the United Way, where she served as director of impact and initiatives.

She has seen firsthand how important a good mentor can be in a person’s life. And she says with new businesses and startups struggling, and with one in four children in the area living in poverty, according to census data, the need for mentors far exceeds the supply. Her goal is to change that imbalance.

What are we talking about when we use the term “mentor”?

A mentor is a trusted guide, so it can be someone who is guiding a child, or it can be a business professional who is guiding another business professional. It can be a parent who is providing their wisdom and guidance to another parent. Really, someone who is trusted, who has the ability to listen and provide their skills, expertise and guidance for another individual.

Why is the need so important for mentoring at the business level?

In the meetings I have been in with IG Gainesville and the Santa Fe College Center for Innovation and Economic Development, I keep hearing an overlying theme, that young businesses—anyone—can benefit from the advice of another person. So, when I think of the business world, I can see an experienced business person mentoring in a variety of ways. For instance, it could be by allowing someone, a younger person, to shadow them at a job. It could be providing an internship to a young person for a longer period of time. It could be speaking to a small group of entrepreneurs on a regular basis, maybe monthly. There is that menu
of opportunities.

What qualities do you look for in a mentor?

Listening, acceptance. It’s not easy to be a mentor, because you have to have the ability to sometimes accept where another individual is in their life. To me, the ideal mentor is someone who can tune into the needs of another individual, to listen to what that other individual is saying they want and the ability to guide versus direct. I think that’s a critical skill for a mentor. You have got to listen, accept, guide and understand that fine line between guidance and direction.

How did the idea of the Mentor Center itself come about?

The Mentor Center is an initiative of the Gainesville Community Foundation, and this is funded through the Cade Family Fund. And the Cade family, and Mary Cade in particular, basically had in their hearts—I think they felt they had seen over the years the advantages of being mentored and being mentors to others. So it really came out of the Cade vision of having a mentor in their life.

Why is it so important for businesses and business people to be involved in mentoring?

If you want to have an educated and prepared workforce, that process begins at birth for a child. If we are looking down the road 20 or 25 years from now, if we want to recruit businesses to establish in our community, we need to be able to say we have great schools, we have a low crime rate, we have nice places to live. And so, to do that, we have to start with the younger generation. That’s where I see the business responsibility; it should be part of a business plan that you don’t just wait for the educated, prepared workforce to show up. Be a part of helping to create that workforce.

What do business people and businesses in general bring to the table when it comes to mentoring efforts? What do you think their contribution can be?

Whether it’s for a child or an adult, they’re already a model of success. For the most part, they’re going to have some degree of education. They are going to bring some experience—life experience—and I believe when you combine all of that, every individual has a story. And they have the ability to share that. They have their education, their wisdom, their experience and their network. To me, the business community just brings everything to the table and can be a huge asset.

What’s your story? How did you get involved in mentoring?

My first true experience that kind of drove my passion and my life was when I was 10 years old. My parents’ best friends had one child, and he had Down syndrome, and he was 6 years old. And they came over one day and asked if I could babysit. Mom said, “He can’t read. He doesn’t know his numbers or his ABCs. He’s never going to learn to read. Can you just do puzzles with him and stuff?”

And I said, “I bet I can teach him to read.” And literally within three weeks, that kid was reading. I had taught him all of his ABCs, I had taught him his numbers, and I was just teaching him what I was learning in school. And it was so powerful for me, as a kid, to think I did something that the grownups hadn’t been able to do.

It’s pretty clear what the mentee gets out of mentoring.
What does the mentor get out of it?

It’s hard to describe, but I get extreme satisfaction from knowing you played even a small part in someone else’s success. You might touch them for a little while and never receive acknowledgement, no one may ever know that you’re doing anything, but then you find out later that because you connected them with this, and this, and this, they’re succeeding. And you have to have the satisfaction of knowing even though you don’t get any acknowledgement, that you did.

How has the downturn in the economy affected your efforts?

Well, every agency needs money. The good thing is that we have a very giving community. But the bottom line is people are stretched, and agencies are facing budget cuts. From the Mentor Center perspective, our job is to recruit mentors and send them to agencies. But if I recruit a bunch of mentors and try to send them to an agency that’s about to close its doors, that doesn’t have any staff to handle these mentors, then we can have all the mentors in the world. But if we don’t have someone to train them, match them and work with them in the system… You can’t do everything based on volunteers.

How do you measure success?

The overall goal will be when I can say, “I have a waiting list of people who are dying to be a mentor, but they’re going to be on a waiting list, because all our kids have them right now, or all our adults have them.” That’s the ultimate measure for success. But, midterm measures of success will be decreasing waiting lists of children or adults needing mentors. Another measure of success that is very concrete is I’m working with agencies to establish goals for fundraising. The Mentor Center has helped agencies reach about $100,000 in grants that they would probably have not written on their own.

How would you sum up your personal philosophy?

Some people look at the glass half full, and some look at it half empty. My weakness is that I tend to look at it as overflowing, so I’m the eternal optimist. I also believe in the “pay-it-forward” thing—that if someone’s been helped, then they need to help somebody else in some way. There is a moral, ethical, personal and emotional reason for doing that.

Mentoring Event

Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones, former Gator quarterback Danny Wuerffel and Perry McGriff participate in the Mentor Center Community Call to Action event held at O2B Kids. Also participating was Gainesville resident Nathan Whitaker, who is a well-known author and speaker focusing on mentoring.

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