by Storyburgh regular contributors + selected submissions from "Your Stories"

Navigating Adolescence

A Mentorship Story

By Alyse Horn-Pyatt

“I love Ms. Barbie, she is like family to me"

-Malajha

It’s Friday afternoon at Manchester PreK-8 on the Northside and students are flowing through the hallways on their way to lunch or recess – but a small group of students will grab their lunch and head to the art room.

There, waiting patiently is Barbara Morello and other adult confidants from Be A Middle School Mentor (BAMSM) – a program that was established by United Way in 2009 to give students extra support during turbulent and formative times of growth.

Morello is a mentor to Malajha, a vibrant 8th grade student who has been in the program for three years and with Morello for just as long.

“Seeing how far she has grown, especially since I’ve been with her for three years, mentally and expanding her horizons – it’s great that we have such a close relationship,” Morello said.

Felicia Bright

Felicia Bright, the school’s social worker, has watched the bond grow between Morello and Malajha and admires the trust that has been built. It’s these types of connections that can also positively impact her relationship with students. Bright said because she represents the school some students are apprehensive to tell her about issues, but they will open up to their mentor who can then, if need be, relay information to Bright.

“We’re trying to connect [the students] with someone who isn’t us. Thing’s come up in a more spontaneous setting,” Bright said.

When Morello and Malajha first met, they hit it off immediately and shared similar hobbies like reading, which acted as the core foundation for their relationship. To Morello, Malajha is like her other little sister, and the two share similar feelings about each other.

“I love Ms. Barbie, she is like family to me,” Malajha said.

Barbara Morello

Something Morello appreciates about United Way’s program is the different activities and themes that are planned each week and how that can expand into larger conversation.

“If she doesn’t feel comfortable to talk to her guardian or a teacher, she feels comfortable enough to talk to me and we can work out whatever issue she’s having,” Morello said.

For Bright, it is important that the students have as many outlets as possible. Since she has been working at Manchester PreK-8, the BAMSM program has doubled from eight to 16 in the school, but Bright doesn’t take all of the credit.

“The students tell their friends and it grows. Kids are the best sellers,” Bright said.

Damon Bethea, mentoring project director for United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, said mentors are recruited through the organization and program partners, and then interviewed and trained after completing a list of clearances.

Morello, emergency management planner for the City, was recruited for BAMSM during Mayor Peduto’s Mentoring Initiative (MMI), which promotes different mentoring programs throughout Pittsburgh to City employees. Including BAMSM there are two other mentoring programs promoted through MMI, Everybody Wins! and mentor2.0 of Big Brothers Big Sister of Greater Pittsburgh (BBBS), and those approved to participate are able to receive paid leave during mentoring hours.

“Getting to spend one-on-one time with your mentee and build that relationship… it’s really great that the City gives you time to do that during your work day,” Morello said. “Especially in middle school years, support is so important to paint the way for high school and beyond.”

Malajha is listening to Barbara Morello with Felicia Bright in the background

Including the programs through MMI, there are a handful of mentorship initiatives in Pittsburgh that focus on supporting adolescents in the region, such as the Mentoring Partnership and One2One Mentoring by Family Guidance, a faith-based organization that is Pittsburgh’s oldest youth mentoring program. Strong Women, Strong Girls, established in 2000, provides guidance for girls in third through fifth grades, but also links college students with women professionals.

With BAMSM, the program ends at 8th grade, but United Way will set up a pipeline for mentoring and mentee pairs who wish to move on to BBBS, which Morello and Malajha intend to do. Bethea said under 50 pairs from the program have gone on to BBBS, but that can be a testament to the connection Morella and Malajha share.

“They both give so fully and listen to each other,” Bright said. “[Malajha’s] really taking it all in.”

This year there are 180 returning mentors to the program, which is in over 20 schools in the city and has recently expanded to surrounding areas. But there is always need for more adults to volunteer once a week with the program.

“What you put in compared to what you get back is priceless,” Morello said. “It’s just an hour of your time and knowing you make a difference in the life of a student – you had something to do with them making the right decision for that day – the benefits for that are priceless.”

Story Credits

Web Producer & Photographer: Will Halim

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
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