By Kate Jolley
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
United Way of Northeast Florida volunteer Nichelle Stone and her mentee Lonah bonded over puzzles. When Stone learned Lonah had an affinity for brain teasers, she wasted no time collecting a folder-full from a calendar with daily brain games.
“Now, we do as many puzzles as we can get through when we’re together before she has to go back to class,” said Stone.
Though she originally studied electrical engineering and holds a master’s degree in marketing, Stone has always been interested in helping students achieve their potential and has always had her hand in tutoring.
She landed in Jacksonville when she was invited and accepted into the Broad Residency, a program that matches qualified participants to managerial positions in urban school districts.
Now a supervisor of accountability and assessment at Duval County Public Schools, Stone was introduced to United Way’s Achievers For Life program through her participation in United Way’s Stein Fellowship.
United Way’s Achievers For Life program, in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida, provides at-risk middle-school students with family support, mentors, and help at school.
Stone proudly attended her first mentee’s high-school graduation last year with tears of joy in her eyes.
Stone meets with her current mentee, Lonah – a sixth grader at Northwestern Middle School – on Thursday afternoons during her lunch period. They discuss her grades; address her achievements, issues and concerns; and, of course, complete a puzzle.
Stone makes a deal with her mentees that if they earn As and Bs on their quarterly reports, she will provide lunch. (She does allow one C per report because “everyone has a bad day now and then.”)
This extra incentive helps keep her mentees interested and honest. “You have to earn things in life, and this is where they start practicing for that,” she said.
One of her proudest moments came when she learned that – unbeknownst to her – Lonah entered an essay into a writing contest, expressing the impact Stone had on her life thus far. The essay won Stone the title of “Mentor of the Year” from United Way.
The honor did not come as a surprise to Charis Scurry, manager of education strategies at United Way and the staff lead for Achievers For Life.
“Nichelle is a great role model to Lonah,” Scurry said. “She encourages her to do her best and is always there for moral support.”
For adults in the community who have a desire to make a difference in the life of a child, Stone strongly believes United Way’s Achievers For Life program is the perfect opportunity, provided they are willing to carve out the time and make a commitment for consistent interaction.
“These kids get enough inconsistency in their lives,” she said. “So you have to be willing to be there for them on a regular basis. They just want someone to listen to them, spend time with them and to hold them accountable. When children have an outlet, or a place to talk about things, they can better focus on their responsibilities like school and growing up.”
If you are interested in becoming an Achievers For Life mentor like Stone, visit unitedwaynefl.org/achievers-for-life.
In addition, you can help prepare Achiever For Life students for school by participating in United Way of Northeast Florida and First Coast News’s “Stuff the Bus” initiative in July. Visit unitedwaynefl.org/summerdaze for more information.