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Mizizi Maji Mentoring Program

The Mizizi Maji (which is Swahili for “Root Water”) Mentoring Program pairs Grand Rapids area youth with adult mentors who, alongside parents, help youth grow to well-rounded, well-traveled, and socially competent citizens. Youth learn and thrive through a variety of exclusive lessons and ventures – like travel – that they might not otherwise experience.
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable?
Mizizi Maji Mentoring Program Director Sharon LaChappelle: The Mizizi Maji Mentoring Program is innovative, effective, and remarkable because of our “it takes a village” approach. The staff and volunteers all become a part of an extended family full of resources for students. Our students, parents, mentors, and staff all learn from each other, and, for the most part, everyone knows one another.
Our program is unique because it offers a broad array of experiences designed to increase social competency and broaden our students’ worldview, and that brings the connection between academic achievement and preparation for adulthood to life for our students. We provide group mentoring, one-to-one mentoring, tutoring, African American history, and college class experiences. We offer our students a chance to experience fine dining, the arts, and advanced technology. They come here to learn advocacy skills, public speaking skills, team-building skills and the value of community service.
We accomplish all of this through partnerships with organizations that include Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College, the Creative Youth Center, and Kids’ Food Basket. We could not do this without the additional wisdom,
Our program is unique because it offers a broad array of experiences designed to increase social competency and broaden our students' worldview...
knowledge and skills of parents, mentors, and other community members.
Another remarkable component of this program is our “3.0 Gets to Go” Education through Travel initiative. For the last four years, students who have good grades, who are involved in extracurricular activities, and who demonstrate good behavior have an opportunity to travel and learn in the summer. We plan to expand the Education through Travel component of our mentoring program to increase student, parent, and mentor knowledge of the United States and of the contribution of African Americans throughout history.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
In the past few years, we have traveled quite a bit, offering our kids wonderful experiences to live and learn. The most solid lesson that I’ve learned has been the importance of a parent or family member who is able to join the experience. We all know that when we go on a trip and have an experience of great magnitude, it can be difficult to express what we felt and learned on that trip after we get back. When a family member can travel with us or partake in a fine dining opportunity, it’s easier for the kids to share their experience.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
The hardest lesson for me has been that you can actually do too much. There have been a few students in the program that I could see greatness in - and I just kept thinking that if I could just get them to this experience, this program or this opportunity, it might get them rolling and shining. It’s important to be patient, to be encouraging and to give it my all, but I am learning that there is a fine line between giving and enabling. Giving too much without expecting enough does students a great disservice.
What really differentiates this program?
A few things differentiate the program. For one thing, our students stay with it for many years; our goal is to be there substantially from the time a student is nine years old until they turn 18. The bonds are that strong and deep -- in many cases, we find out that the connection is for life.
The fact that we have both one-to-one and group mentoring also strengthens this unique support network, because we all
...I am learning that there is a fine line between giving and enabling. Giving too much without expecting enough does students a great disservice.
know each other and can utilize one another’s strengths. We offer an array of hands-on learning, too, with “Education through Travel” being the most unique and powerful experience we offer.
Lastly, we are unique because of our focus on African American history and on learning about other cultures, through new foods and new experiences.
What are the keys to success for your program?
The biggest key is for us, as staffers and mentors, to always remembering that we do not replace family members or parents. We are just a part of the support structure that they need for growth and learning.
In looking at programs similar to yours, which program do you think is doing exceptional work?
I like the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan’s approach in working with young people and families. Although [former education director] Stacy Stout has moved to another organization, she set up a structure that continues to include and support parents. A structure that still holds students to a high standard, provides them with support, and lets the community know in no uncertain terms that the center’s students are assets -- not liabilities -- and that colleges, businesses, organizations and communities should invest in them deeply.
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