By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in the Florida Times-Union
Sometimes when Chris Simser goes to spend time with his mentee it’s a one-on-one basketball game, sometimes it’s two-on-two.
Simser’s mentee and his brother both participate in the dropout prevention strategy, Achievers For Life, partially funded and managed by United Way of Northeast Florida. Pulling the two boys into a game can sometimes have a bigger impact than anything else.
“We do a lot of basketball, homework projects,” Simser said. “Boys don’t always want to talk about their feelings, so we play ball a lot.”
The two were matched by a Communities In Schools of Jacksonville coordinator who felt that the younger brother would also benefit from mentoring. Simser started with his J.E.B. Stuart Middle School student in sixth grade and stayed connected with him for a second year. Enjoying the relationship, Simser is convinced that progress is under way.
“I felt a lot of hope,” said Simser after working with his student. “He’s a gifted kid trying to do the best he can.”
With his own son starting kindergarten this year, Simser has a vested interest in seeing children succeed in Jacksonville’s schools.
And as a Stein Fellow, Simser knows first-hand the benefits of mentoring. The Stein Fellowship is a multi-generational program that matches accomplished community leaders who are members of the Tocqueville Society, which recognizes people for their voluntary service and philanthropic leadership. Young professionals and up-and-coming leaders are matched with at-risk middle school students.
Volunteering seems to have sneaked up on Simser.
“I kind of got involved by accident,” Simser said of his first efforts working with Habitat for Humanity in Atlanta. “The connection with the homeowners is different [from the connection with his student], but it showed me what a difference volunteering can make. I built on that.”
Starting with Bank of America as a teller 22 years ago, Simser moved up through the ranks and is now a project manager within the Technology and Operations department. Although most of his career was spent in Atlanta, the company recently relocated him to Jacksonville. It’s a move Simser welcomes, and his volunteerism connects him more with the city.
“It’s a great way to get to know the city,” Simser said. “Jacksonville has so much potential.”
Simser has taken on the role of volunteer coordinator at Bank of America and is proud of his co-workers’ contributions.
“Bank of America volunteers put in 79,000 hours in 2014,” he said.
His other volunteer experiences include Junior Achievement, Feeding Northeast Florida and participating in the Congressional District Leader ONE Campaign, focusing on global poverty and preventable disease issues.
“Education is one of our biggest challenges,” Simser said. “We’re all in this together; improving it is better for all of us.”