Innovative mentoring program opens new possibilities for students in Western Mass

Jackson is wearing a suit for the first time in his life. Every other young man in the room also has a jacket and tie on, a prerequisite for attending this event. The 17-year-old High Schooler from Springfield MA takes his seat as proceedings begin. 

He looks across the room and smiles. This doesn’t feel half bad. 

Young men in attendance at Suited for Growth

The lineup of speakers includes respected professionals and businesspeople from around Western Massachusetts.

That’s another first for him; face-to-face interactions with people who have been through high school here in Springfield and are now successful leaders in their careers.

The event has been organized by ‘Follow My Steps,’ a non-profit that provides mentorship for youth in under-resourced communities in Western Massachusetts. They match mentors from different industries and careers with mentees, and organize events like this to provide career guidance and support.

The Five-Year Plan

Their mentorship model is structured so that a mentor is matched with a mentee, aka, an ‘explorer.’

The two will set up a series of meetings, virtually or in person, where the explorer will talk to their mentor about their background, the things they love to do, the things they’re struggling with, and the things they want to achieve. 

The mentor will then take the explorer on a journey of mapping out a five-year plan for their life. 

Follow My Steps Strategy & Development Director, Anthony Payne, explained how this would work:

“So if we have a kid in ninth grade that comes into the program, they’ll be matched up with a [mentor] and they’ll talk about a five-year plan. You may have a kid say, ‘I want to go to Duke University’, ‘I want to be a D1 athlete’, or ‘I want to be a pro baseball player.’ So then the [mentor] will say, ‘Okay, let’s talk about how you might get there.’”

He explained how this process helps the mentee to put into place the building blocks that will help them move toward their goal. These might include getting certain grades in school, volunteering, or getting work experience.

“It’s one thing to have ambitious goals, but it’s another thing to have a plan. So we’re just helping kids realize that there are specific milestones they should target if they want to reach these goals and the kids may not necessarily think about all this stuff or they might not have the opportunity to talk to someone about it.”

Young women in attendance at Suited for Growth

A key component of the mentorship program is linking mentees with someone whom they will look up to and who is in the field they are interested in. “We might have a mentor who is a professional athlete who can talk to a kid about what that path looks like,” said Payne. “Or we may have a mentor that is a doctor or a nurse or an engineer who might talk to the kid about precisely what you need to do to get there.”

Follow My Steps also hosts a weekly fitness program, ‘Step Up Fitness,’ an annual ‘Mentoring Matters 5k,’ and summit events aimed at young men and young women called “Suited for Growth”.

Shooting for Success

Their first career readiness event, held in 2022, received a lot of support from the business community around western Massachusetts. It was structured like a career fair with different professions and businesses represented at tables around a room. Students went around finding out about each profession. 

The challenge was that not too many young people showed up, so the Follow My Steps team came up with a few modifications to boost attendance. 

Payne explained; “So we had the idea to frame it differently, where we would maintain the concept of having all the different businesses and entrepreneurs and leaders from the community come in and speak to the kids but combine that with a basketball tournament.” 

And that’s exactly what they did. They organized a two-day event in April which they called ‘Shooting for Success.’ The Community Foundation provided event sponsorship and a Flexible Funding grant, which helped Follow My Steps make scholarships available to the winning teams.

Scholarship winner at Shooting for Success banquet

The first day was at Western New England University. They had all the different businesses that participated set up tables in the gym and the kids had ‘passports’ printed out for them. They got a stamp in their passport for each table they visited. 

To qualify for the tournament which was taking place at the same venue, players needed to have a minimum of 10 stamps.

The second day of the tournament took place the following day at the Basketball Hall of Fame. It ended with a championship game and an awards ceremony.

The event was a massive success with 67 young people taking part.

Suited for Growth

Another successful set of events held by Follow My Steps was called ‘Suited for Growth.’ This had two parts, one event for young women held at Bay Path University and another for young men, referred to at the beginning of this article, at Western New England University. 

Speaker at Suited for Growth

They had professionals come in and speak to the young people about career skills, networking, confidence, and other skills that will help them succeed as they navigate through high school, college and beyond. 

They had all the young people come dressed up in business attire for these events. For the young men’s attire, they received generous support from Suit Up Springfield.  

Filling a Gap

The foundation for these and other events and programs that Follow My Steps is a realization of the sort of gaps in the resources available to young people from under-resourced communities.

Founders Kashawn Sanders and Tyrone Williams started the organization to fill in some of those gaps.

Payne said that as professionals who have had exposure to different environments, the team that Sanders and Williams have put together can look back at the Springfield school system and others like it with a new perspective. 

“We can see some of the disadvantages that affect the communities we’re from. Specifically when you talk about the lack of resources in the school systems. A lot of the schools are so student-heavy with not enough teachers. And a lot of these kids are not getting that one-to-one attention that kids in other communities get, so it’s just trying to fill in that gap.”

Looking Ahead

Payne said that the community has shown Follow My Steps tremendous support. 

Board members at Hooplandia event

“We’re in our fourth year. But it’s just been fun to be a part of this kind of growth. We’ve got organizations throughout Western Mass and beyond, including your organization [Community Foundation] that support us. Just to name a few; Baystate Health, MGM Springfield, The Basketball Hall of Fame, The Big E, and others have all come together and thrown support our way which has enabled us to do a lot of the things that we’re doing to scale.

How You Can Help
You can support the work that Follow My Steps does in several ways. You can sign up to be a mentor through their website. You can donate to support their various programs, or you can sign up to be a volunteer at one of their events.

Note: In order to protect the privacy of minors, pseudonyms may be used in any content involving individuals under the age of 18. Fictional names are employed solely for the purpose of safeguarding their identities when requested, complying with ethical standards.