YMCA's mentoring program builds a better future for at-risk youth

Justin Morrell and his mentor,
Luke Sikora, at the Embarcadero YMCA
Photo: Iris Rowlee
It’s a Sunday afternoon at the YMCA, and sun streams in from the small, high windows onto the basketball court. The space is peaceful; the sound of a ball bouncing is punctuated only by the calm calling out of points. Two unlikely friends, Luke Sikora and Justin Edward Morrell, are playing basketball together. Sikora is a 26-year-old Marina resident with a job in finance. Morrell is a Hunter’s Point resident who will be going into the fifth grade this fall. Sikora and Morrell’s relationship was born out of a newly expanded YMCA program, Building Futures.

Building Futures is a free, one-to-one mentoring program based out of the YMCA’s Urban Services branch. According to their website, the program is “aimed to move youth from risk to resiliency and help build a better future by matching them with an adult for one year.”

The program has been in existence for 19 years, but in October 2009, Urban Services received a $7.2 million grant from the U.S. Federal Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention to greatly expand the mentoring service. The YMCA’s press release said, “It will allow our organization to replicate our successful Building Futures Mentoring Program in five regions throughout the U.S. at over 50 YMCAs nationwide.” The local YMCAs that are beginning to reap the benefits through new and expanded programs are the Presidio, Buchanan, Chinatown, Central, Urban Services, Marin, and Peninsula branches.

Originally from the Chicago area, mentor Sikora attended USC to study finance and then moved to the Bay Area in 2007 for a job in that sector. Last year, he found out about Building Futures when his former CFO invited him to a fundraising event for the YMCA’s Urban Services. Sikora brought along his roommate. Both of them were intrigued by the program and soon became mentors.
Sikora has been matched up with Morrell for eight months now. Justin is shy but articulate and very athletically inclined. He plays sports year round as well as skateboards. When Sikora and Morrell get together, they often go to the YMCA to play basketball and swim or go to the park. They also go see movies and go out to eat. They especially like Mexican food, a favorite of both of theirs. When Justin is asked what his favorite memories are, he says, “Going to eat lots of good food with Luke.”

“We also really like trying new places,” says Sikora, who feels this is a positive way to expand one’s horizons.

In the presence of Sikora and Justin, it’s easy to see they have a strong bond and mutually benefit from the relationship. Not only do they have a good time hanging out, they are learning from one another. Sikora says Justin brings him a fresh perspective. “He has interesting questions and a good attitude.”

Nick Wightman, the Building Futures coordinator who matched them up, points out that Justin has two younger sisters and a mother who is a single parent. He says it’s good for Justin to have a positive and successful male influence in his midst.

Youth between 6 and 18 years old are referred to the program through school counselors, community agencies, the Youth Services Bureau of the YMCA, and by individuals. “Anybody in the Bay Area can refer a child to us. The YMCA is very inclusive and really serves the community at large,” says Wajma Ataie, the Building Futures project coordinator at the Presidio YMCA.

Jeannie Dulberg, national director of Building Futures, added, “We would like to invite churches and service organizations to contact us as well.”

Becoming a mentor is open to the community at large. “You don’t have to belong to the Y to become a mentor,” says Ataie. “Also, you get a special ID that gets you into any Y while you’re with your mentee.”

The Presidio program is nascent and currently recruiting mentors. Mentors must be 23 or older with no prior felonies. Applicants must go through a screening process to ensure they are mentally and emotionally suitable for a youth and able to provide a good influence. Potential mentors must also make a one-year commitment to spend a few hours a week with a mentee.

Once accepted to the program, the mentor goes through 15 hours of therapeutic paraprofessional training broken down into five classes in which they learn to understand cultural/social development, mental health issues, risk factors, and ways to communicate with youth. “Our program follows a therapeutic model and we are training our mentors to be paraprofessional counselors.” Ataie says, “We teach strength and recreational-based therapy. It’s about trust building and creating cultural empathy.”

“All of our site coordinators have completed or are in master’s programs for social work and counseling,” says Ataie. The intent of Building Futures is to provide the tools for positive growth and progress in the mentees. “We are trying to instill in youth the idea that they have the resources to empower themselves as much as possible.” Exposing youth to successful adults provides solid examples of tangible aspirations for youth. “Many of our mentees come from single-family homes. Parents are often looking for more for their child, to enhance their lives,” says Ataie.
“During the first training session, we do an exercise in which we make everyone think of people who have helped them out in their lives and what it meant to them. So many people have had someone in their life who provided for them in a time of great need or just let them know they’re worth it. It’s indispensable.”

On a beautiful Friday evening, a small group gathers in the conference room at the Presidio YMCA for a three-hour mentor training session. Ataie co-leads the training with her identical twin sister, Diba, who holds the same position at the Marin YMCA. The evening’s training delves into abuse, gangs and violence issues affecting youth. Trainee Katie Layng currently works in ad sales. She says, “I did mentoring-type programs in college and have missed it. I always wanted to be a social worker and this is my fix.”

Gracious, perceptive and highly competent, the Ataie sisters are both working on their master’s in marriage and family therapy at JFK University. “I love my job,” says Ataie, with a sparkle in her eye. “I love working with families. It’s fulfilling work; between the mentors, mentees and families, I get to meet so many amazing people.”

She says she is always impressed with the selflessness of the mentors. “They’ve been working all day, then come here tired but always ready to learn.” Furthermore, she says, “I love that it’s a preventative program. Like they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment.”

If you are interested in becoming a YMCA mentor, contact Nick Wightman, Building Futures coordinator, at 415-561-0631 ext.102, or e-mail nwightman@ymcasf.org.