Alana Vaca and Joshua Yang will tell you they wouldn’t have gotten as far as they have without mentors. Now Vaca and Yang are mentoring others who need some extra help at Merced’s Tenaya Middle School.
As part of the AmeriCorps program serving four Merced area schools, Vaca and Yang are college-educated and get a living allowance through the program operated by the Merced County Office of Education. They each are working with 20 sixth- through eighth-grade students.
“I am excited about the opportunity to help students,” Yang said. “They don’t know about opportunities and don’t believe they can do things. I like the opportunity to empower them; they haven’t been exposed to the world yet.”
Vaca, 25, graduated from California State University, Fresno, in 2011 with a degree in communicative disorders. In her second year as a Tenaya mentor, she will be beginning a multiple subjects credentialing program next spring at Fresno Pacific University and hopes ultimately to teach fifth- and sixth-graders.
“I grew up in this neighborhood and went to Tenaya,” Vaca said. “You see more than you’re supposed to as a child. It’s difficult for them to see past the day. They don’t think about their potential and need mentors to steer them in the right direction.”
AmeriCorps is operated through MCOE, facilitated by coordinator Daphne Post. She said there are six mentors at four campuses, serving 120 students. Each mentor is assigned to their respective school site on a full-time basis from August through next July.
“All the students are considered at-risk,” Post said. “They have adversity in their lives. Many don’t make it through high school graduation. We want to connect them with as many possible role models as possible, another set of people who care about them.”
Ken Cooper, Tenaya assistant principal who supervises the mentors and schedules meetings with students, said the students and their families are grateful for their assistance.
“We’re very thankful that they’re here,” Cooper said. “Sixty showed up for 40 slots. The parents value any program that helps their children succeed.”
Vaca said as she was growing up she had mentors who took her under their wing, making sure she didn’t fall off track.
“I think they (students) appreciate you asking how their day is doing,” Vaca said. “I see a glimmer of hope when I tell them I went here and graduated from college. I wouldn’t have achieved what I have achieved without other people.”
Yang, also 25, got a bachelor’s degree in sociology from California State University, Stanislaus, in summer 2011 and is still checking out career options. He is considering going back to get a master’s degree in social work.
“I’ve been fortunate to have role models in my life,” Yang said. “I want to pass some of this good fortune, pay it forward.” He was born in Modesto at went to Fremont Charter School in Merced and Mitchell Elementary School in Atwater.
Yang said he teaches his students organizational and social skills, how to make deadlines and be on time.
Post said AmeriCorps leaders want to utilize every program available with the county schools office to help the students and keep them from being “latch-key kids.”
They are building connections with Merced College, UC Merced and the Boys and Girls Club of Merced County and encourage students to get involved in after-school sports and community service activities.
Cooper said it is sometimes tricky managing the logistics of getting the mentors and students together, either before or after school or during lunch periods. The mentors help students with career planning and give them a focus outside of Merced.
Many of these students have never seen snow or the ocean, Cooper said.
Mentors will help their students with academic subjects but also cover personal issues. Vaca said students open up to her very quickly and Yang said some students connect easily with him while others are more withdrawn.
“They have a lot going on,” Vaca said. “I feel like I am making a difference.”
Post said the mentors also get involved with the students’ families and try to channel the youngsters into productive activities. They develop a personal connection and that one-to-one relationship is something they can depend upon.
Post said some of the mentored students have completed the first of four community service events for the year. AmeriCorps members mentor youth with a variety of structured activities such as academic support, community service-learning, college and career preparation, art, recreation, leadership and physical activities.
Jonathan Nussur serves Yosemite High School and Esther Mills is at Sequoia High School. Krista Xiong and Eveny Chang mentor students at Valley Community School.