Hudson Valley women’s mentoring group needs volunteers

Helen and Kelly, new mentees (photo by Ian Falcon)

Nancy Sweeney of Lake Katrine has been mentoring a woman who’d been stuck in a dead-end, low-income job for 10 years. After several months of receiving weekly support and guidance from Sweeney, the mentee has started a higher-paying job that offers possibilities for promotion and learning. 

“It’s so satisfying to see her happy and successful and excited now about the future,” said Sweeney, who volunteers with Kingston-based Raising HOPE, designed to help women succeed despite challenges that have, in many cases, landed them in the social services system. The organization was founded in 2007 to give women who no longer needed such services the help that would keep them moving forward rather than falling back into the system. Today Raising HOPE serves a range of women from all over Ulster County seeking help with education and careers, and a recent grant from the Novo Foundation is expanding their services, increasing the need for new mentors.

“Many of our mentees are high school dropouts and single mothers who have been homeless or had substance abuse problems or been battered by their partners,” said Amy Summers, the director of Raising HOPE, part of United Way of Ulster County. “Their stories are amazing, heart-wrenching, and inspiring. They want to go back to school, get GEDs or college degrees, and find good jobs.”

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But it’s often hard, even for determined women, to buck the sense of failure their lives have delivered, while figuring out how to navigate a new world of resumes, applications, and interviews. Sweeney, who wrote a doctorate thesis on mentoring, obtained her degree while working and maintaining a household. “I’ve walked down that road,” she said. “I know the balancing act.” She offered her mentee guidance in writing a resume, and they role-played job interviews together, but she said, “My mentee did all the work. My greatest contribution was giving her the confidence to step out and do more with her talents. Everyone needs a cheering section.”

“My background was not an easy one,” said Summers, explaining the path she took to running Raising HOPE. “I had a turbulent childhood, like many of the women we serve. I overcame a lot.” Originally from Teaneck, NJ, in the 1990s she lived at the Kripalu Center for four years, studying yoga, meditation, and holistic health. She started Transformation Center Workshop in Amherst MA, offering workshops in meditation and conscious communication, with clients that included faculty and staff at the Five College Consortium. “You’d have a maintenance person sitting next to a professor, and they had to learn to connect,” she recalled. “It leveled the playing field.”  

After moving to the Hudson Valley, Summers worked as membership director at the Kingston YMCA, taught Aquoga (aquatic yoga) at the Y, and ran a gallery in Woodstock. When she was hit by a drunk driver and broke 16 bones, she had a new challenge to surmount. She spent two years in a nursing home, learning how to walk again, and was still shaky on her feet when she saw the ad for a position with Raising HOPE and decided to apply. Within a year, she had become the director and hired Woodstock resident Tasha Ortloff as assistant program director. A single parent and special education advocate for her son, Ortloff’s experience includes earning a college degree and buying a home while working to support her family. 

A recent alliance with SUNY Ulster’s New Start for Women program has brought a new set of clients seeking mentors. Providing a one-year business certificate, New Start serves the same demographic as Raising HOPE. “They are first-time college attendees,” said Summers. “Maybe they’ve been in the foster care system, or just never had anyone special to be there for them.” The need for mentors is about to triple, between the New Start women and agency referrals, although Summers noted that no one is mandated to receive services from Raising HOPE. “They’re women who are at risk but could do well with help, and they’re recommended by case workers or someone who cares about them.”  

Mentees must be at least at least 18 years of age and free of drugs, alcohol, and domestic violence for a minimum of six months, with an educational or career goal. Mentors have to be at least 30, although most are older, and they must have a sincere desire to help another woman. Pairs are carefully matched and work together for one year. Mentors receive training in how to establish boundaries, measure progress, and use the various tools available. The career goals inventory, for instance, enables the mentor to understand how the mentee works and the best ways to help her move forward, setting positive, realistic goals. Each goal is broken down into a series of steps.

Summers and Ortloff support the mentoring pairs with regular strategy sessions for addressing the snags that come up. Summers has created a curriculum of speakers who come to the monthly dinner gatherings of mentors and mentees to provide information on such topics as resume writing, problem solving, frugal living, yoga and meditation, building a brand, financial literacy, and stress management. The dinners also help build a supportive community where achievements are celebrated.

Rosalie Frankel, a collage artist and retired public school teacher, is working with a mentee whose anxiety had immobilized her. Despite having earned a college degree, she was unable to seek a job aside from working as a nanny. “I have anxiety too,” said Frankel, “so I could relate. I was seeing fear in her eyes, and she was apologizing all the time.” The young woman also had no idea what she wanted to do. Frankel launched her on a process of elimination, rejecting occupations that didn’t interest her. They came upon social work as a possibility. Frankel researched programs, and the mentee signed up for courses at SUNY New Paltz. Although she can’t afford to continue her education right now, she found a new job, and she’s happier. “She doesn’t apologize so much,” said Frankel. “Young people don’t get how things change. They think everything is fatal, but I can tell her otherwise, and she can hear.” 

Renee Gambino, a business coach, has been mentoring a young woman who “had proof in life that things don’t usually work out. She was terrified of the goals she had. I’ve seen her face some huge fears. She’s enrolled in a masters program as a filmmaker, and there’s a documentary she wants to get out in the world. She has to let the light shine on her so the world can see it.” Gambino loves mentoring more than she expected. One of her initial fears was that her mentee would become excessively demanding and dependent on her, but she finds the program has been structured to set clear boundaries. 

If these descriptions of mentees are lacking in detail, it’s because, in our interviews, mentors were careful to preserve the confidentiality of the women they are supporting. Privacy of mentees is strictly maintained, encouraging a sense of trust.

“Anyone considering becoming a mentor should not be nervous about knowing what to do,” said Sweeney. “Raising HOPE provides guidance at every point along the way to achieve mentee success.”

Frankel remarked, “It’s been amazing meeting these women who are extraordinary, stronger than imaginable. They come from a place where they’ve had no help and no money, and a lot of them have little kids, but they move forward. I don’t know how they do it.”

To find out more about joining the Raising HOPE program, contact Tasha via email at tortloff@ulsterunitedway.org or by phone at 845-331-4199, ext. 5. Further information is available at https://www.ulsterunitedway.org.

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