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Giving Back: United Way Achievers For Life volunteer comes full circle

November 12, 2016

By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union

Sometimes what seems like an opportunity to help someone else can bring you full circle with your own life experiences. For Molly Miles, that’s what being an Achievers For Life mentor is – an opportunity to come full circle with her own 12-year-old self and those who gave back to her.

Molly Miles enjoys volunteering through United Way of Northeast Florida and its partners as an Achievers For Life mentor. Credit: Photo by Nancy Winckler-Zuniga

Achievers For Life is a United Way of North Florida initiative in partnership with Jewish Family & Community Services, Communities In Schools of Jacksonville, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida, and Duval County Public Schools. It identifies at-risk students to provide family support, mentors, and help for students at school, as well as enhance parent engagement in their student’s education. Achievers For Life supports middle-schools students in 10 schools across Duval County.

For Miles, being a 12-year-old was tough. It was a time of confusion, of trying to fit in and trying to make sense of friendships and becoming a young adult.

“Twelve was a really tough year for me,” Miles said. “I was going to a private, all-girls school where I didn’t feel like I fit in. While I had friends, I was insecure and just felt like a fish out of water.”

This challenging period lasted for a few years until Miles transferred to a public high school.  That’s when everything changed. She credits the move with saving her self-esteem and enabling her to grow personally.  It was where she finally found the connections all children need to believe they can succeed.

“If you don’t feel like you belong, it’s really hard,” Miles said. “When I transferred to Clayton High I found my network and made friendships that will last my lifetime. That was a real tipping point for me.

Clayton High is also where Miles found a mentor in her friend’s mom, Judy Malone. “Judy supported me just because she could. She loved me but she didn’t have to. That’s pretty incredible,” Miles said.

Two years ago, Miles and her family moved to Jacksonville so she could take a position with Availity, a local health technology company that “adopted” Ribault Middle School. As Miles became aware of the company’s commitment to the school – through volunteer projects, mentoring and more – the thought of mentoring a middle-schooler brought back memories of her own difficult time and what she learned from her mentor.

Miles could see what her mentees were up against.

“This has changed my perspective on the world,” Miles said about mentoring through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida, United Way’s Achiever For Life mentoring partner.

At first, the interaction with her mentee wasn’t easy. One-word answers made Miles feel like she wasn’t making much headway – until last Thanksgiving morning.

“That morning, she called me,” Miles said. “She said that she just wanted to wish me a happy Thanksgiving. Since then, we’ve bonded. It was her way of saying, ‘I’m grateful for you.’ It was an awesome moment.”

Their bond was strong enough that when another female student was in need of a mentor, Miles and her mentee decided together to have the student join them.  The three now spend an hour a week meeting together, and the girls are mentoring each other, helping to keep each other on track.

Miles talks with the girls a lot about making choices.

“These kids struggle with what’s right,” Miles said. “I try to teach them something I learned in church: ‘In light of my past experiences and my future hopes and dreams, what’s the wise thing to do?’”

Miles said she looks forward to helping both girls move forward in school, helping them overcome disparities in their lives while changing her own in the process.

If you are interested in becoming an Achievers For Life mentor, visit unitedwaynefl.org/achievers-for-life.