By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
Four years ago, when Matt Kutzer first volunteered to be part of United Way of Northeast Florida’s Achievers For Life mentoring initiative, he wasn’t sure what it would be like to have someone look up to him as a father figure. He was a bit nervous. But little by little, through quiet persistence, he was able to build a relationship with his mentee that made both of them stronger.
“I’m also quiet,” Kutzer said. “It took a long time, learning [about] each other, building a trusting relationship. Ivan didn’t have a male figure in his life; his dad wasn’t in the picture.”
Kutzer’s parents divorced when he was a child. He could identify with his mentee’s sense of loss and recognize he was very lucky with his own father’s continued involvement.
“I related to Ivan’s situation,” Kutzer said. “I felt that I could help him move on beyond a past experience, even if it was still hurtful.”
As Kutzer and his mentee got to know each other, things began to improve. At first it was Ivan’s math scores, but then other grade achievements came along as well.
“His grades, they were C’s and D’s at first,” Kutzer said. “Last year, he was on the A/B Honor Roll, and he’s ready to set good goals and find good role models in high school.”
Kutzer, a financial analyst, became a United Way volunteer after chairing United Way’s annual giving campaign at Arizona Chemical, where Kutzer has worked for the last eight years. Kutzer was struck by the need for volunteers, especially male role models.
“I asked myself, ‘Why not me?’” Kutzer said. “I see the need.”
Kutzer grew up in Jacksonville, both in Mandarin and on the Northwest side of the city, heavily involved with his church. He credits his faith with pushing him to see beyond his own front door. Youth projects with Habitat for Humanity opened his eyes to local needs, and mission experiences in Central America and Africa expanded his vision even further.
Kutzer said being a mentor helped set the stage for becoming a father himself. With a new son and another on the way, Kutzer said he thinks his own children will benefit from the leadership and connections he’s experienced through mentoring with Achievers For Life.
“It was hard to let go when Ivan went to high school and to take on a new student,” Kutzer said. “But we were ready for new challenges. I was thrown into parenting quicker than I expected, but this helped prepare me, helped me learn how to listen, to recognize what someone else needs.”