If you don’t ask, people can’t say yes. Kathy Witkowicki, founder and executive director of Sonoma Valley’s “Stand By Me” Mentoring Alliance, lives by this motto—and it shows. She founded the program in 1996 as a single mother of four and emergency room nurse who saw that many children at her kids’ school were struggling. Since then, her organization and its caring adult mentors have helped more than 1,500 vulnerable children through eight Mentor Centers and many activities. The program’s mentees demonstrate improved self-confidence and academic performance and are more likely to stay in school.
Kathy started Stand By Me as an academic program with a state grant, but, she says, “Within the first year of operation, I quickly realized that academics was only a small part of what these at-risk children needed if they were going to have a chance to be successful. If they stayed in school and did not drop out, if they did not have or create a teen pregnancy, if they did not use drugs or alcohol to numb their pain, and if they did not join a gang so they could feel like they had a family, then we would be doing our job.”
The program now has 450 long-term volunteers matched with 450 disadvantaged youths. Mentors are asked to spend at least one hour a week with their child—many spend more—and to make a long-term commitment, which Kathy hopes will last a lifetime. The program provides support by offering fun classes, group trips to museums, concerts, and sporting events, and involvement in community service projects. The mentor retention rate is high; they stay involved with Stand By Me an average of eight years.
Katy, who was matched with her mentor, Carol, in third grade and is now college-bound, says Carol taught her “it’s OK to ask for help; it’s important to talk about tough situations; that everyone deserves respect; and that people reach out to comfort you because they care.”
Kathy herself was the child of a mother who was sick and a father who worked three jobs, she says, and her neighbor Pat took her on family vacations and helped her with homework after school. Today, Kathy is passing it on, not only through her work with the organization but also by filling her now-empty nest with a mentee of her own, Jackie. Kathy says, “She has become a part of our family, and will be in my life forever.”