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Mentor Plus Program benefits children and parents

Emily Aughinbaugh, Tribune staff writer

South Shore resident Pamela Calarruda says she and her two teenage daughters were recently given a great gift that many Tahoe youth can receive.

About three months ago, South Lake Tahoe Youth and Family Services recommended to Calarruda, a single mom, that she sign her daughters up for the Mentor Plus Program, which matches teenagers with responsible adult mentors.

Calarruda agreed, and her daughters, Tina, 14, and Anna, 11, were paired with professional women Debbie Holland and Mandi Winnicki, who have served as the girls’ role models ever since.



“I’m very fortunate,” Calarruda said. “I’m really glad I had the opportunity to get the girls in the program. It teaches them a lot of responsibility, and the children don’t have a lot of time to get into trouble.”

Holland, Tina’s mentor, said she volunteered for the program after her friends shared how much it touched their lives.




“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Holland said. “You can’t ever put a price tag on the reward you get. It’s a paycheck from the heart.”

Holland said she spends an average of 10 hours a week with Tina, taking her to the beauty salon, to the movies, to dinner and even weekend trips.

Tina helps Holland with her Mary Kay business, learning how to train Holland’s consultants and serving as a face model.

“Just spending time with (Tina) is awesome,” Holland said. “Getting her nails done and seeing the way she just looks at them, it’s great.”

Calarruda said the program has offered her children more than just mentors.

“I don’t consider (the program) a babysitting tool, because it gives (Tina and Anna) a chance to choose what kind of career they want to go into,” Calarruda said. “It teaches them about the business world.”

She said Holland and Winnicki have also been confidants, listening to common concerns the teenagers face.

“I’m the mom, they’re not going to tell me anything,” Calarruda said. “Tina really trusts her mentor and confides in her. It’s great.”

Although Tina said she was a little apprehensive when she first started the program, she said Holland took her to do things, like getting her ears pierced and nails done, which she wouldn’t have otherwise done.

“(I mostly enjoy) that I’m with Debbie,” Tina said. “She’s just always there for me.”

Anna said when she first started the program she made a deal with Winnicki, her mentor and a 23-year-old student and business owner.

“She teaches me how to bead and I teach her how to sew,” Anna said.

Anna said she loves talking about boys, seeing movies and beading necklaces with Winnicki, who works at Beads Etc.

Winnicki said she’s glad she decided to be a mentor, but she said it will be hard when Anna is too old to be in the program.

The program is funded by a grant that targets middle school kids, age 11 to 14.

“After she goes to high school I’ll probably be bummed,” Winnicki said. However, Winnicki said she’ll continue to mentor another youth while keeping in touch with Anna because she feels it’s part of her responsibility to the community.

“When the little girl Krystal (Steadman) died it broke my heart,” Winnicki said. “If we don’t as a community step up and take care of (the youth) then the weirdoes are going to.”

Melissa Hayden, mentor coordinator for Youth and Family Services, said that community attitude is why the program was first started in Tahoe three years ago, to catch youth in their formative years.

“I absolutely love this program,” Hayden said. “I think it has great potential. I rarely have a mentor that leaves and the kids love it. They get to learn things outside of their normal sort of realm and they enjoy the attention.”

Hayden said candidates for the program have to be referred by a parent or the school system, and they are usually kids who need more attention, mostly due to their situation at home.

Right now Hayden said there are 19 kids in the program and 15 mentors, who have to go through a background and fingerprint check.

Hayden said mentors are matched with their youth based on gender and similar interests. She said there is no cost to the student or the mentor to join the program, however mentors are responsible to pay for any activities the two participate in.

Hayden said mentors agree to spend at least two hours a week for a full school year with their students, however she said most of the mentors stick with their youth beyond the required time.

The first group of South Shore youth just graduated to the high school last year, leaving behind the program but not their mentors.

“Unfortunately I’ve lost (the mentors) from the program,” Hayden said. “But I don’t really see it as a loss, because I like to see them keep that relationship with their kids.”

Students with mentors are more likely to :

n stay in school

n have better attendance

n go on to college

n boast higher grade-point averages


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