The members of Education Leadership Initiative (ELI), a United Way of Central Iowa donor affinity group focused on Education Success efforts, understand the immense value of mentorship in the lives of young individuals. 

When it comes to the lifelong difference a mentor can make in someone’s life, the facts speak for themselves. 

Take, for instance, an expansive research report recently put together by MENTOR titled, “Who Mentored You?” Nearly 75% of those surveyed said they had a meaningful mentor growing up who contributed significantly to their later success in life. Additionally, 85% of young people with a mentor say this key relationship has helped them with issues related to school and their education. The positive statistics continue to pile up. 

This lasting impact of mentorship plays out in central Iowa, too, especially through many of the programs and organizations United Way of Central Iowa’s donor affinity group, Education Leadership Initiative (ELI), supports with help from the generous gifts of their members. 

One such organization is Sarge’s Westside Boxing Club. 

Consider one high school student who boxes at the after-school boxing club. This past winter, he was failing all his classes simply because he hadn’t completed his assignments. So, Sarges’ owner, Kervin Veasley, called upon the help of a teacher who now spends a couple hours a week mentoring and tutoring the student within the boxing club.   

That’s what Sarge’s Westside Boxing Club is all about — teaching local youth life skills along with the art of boxing. 

Veasley started the club about seven years ago and shares that 30 to 40 students are involved at any given time. They learn things like how to write cursive or how to answer a phone correctly and are provided with tutoring services if needed. And for the older kids, the club helps them get jobs at places like Quick Trip   or McDonalds. 

“Not everyone is going to be the best boxer, but the one thing they can learn is discipline,” Veasley says. 

Sarge’s supports students from the age of 5 all the way up to 18. Veasley shares many are lower income students from an array of backgrounds, so he makes sure the club’s mentors reflect that diversity as well. 

“Through United Way, we were able to amplify our mentoring process and get tutors to come in and help the kids anywhere between two to four days a week, according to what the need is,” Veasley adds. 

Another organization with a focus on mentorship is ManUp Iowa Mentoring INC, which was founded in 2013 with the purpose of being a preventative support network for young men in the community. 

“Many of the young men we serve are not surrounded by positive influences on a consistent basis and do not have the resources or tools to be successful in their journey to manhood,” explains Zach Smith, CEO and founder of ManUp Iowa. “Additionally, male youth are historically an underserved population and in great need of prevention services for multiple important reasons.”

Youth enrolled in the program are often referred as a result of behavioral issues, social/emotional issues, juvenile court involvement, and lack of positive male role models in their lives. After only a few months in the program, parents and guardians often report that they’ve noticed changes with their youth’s attitude and overall behaviors.  

Participants in ManUp Iowa have access to weekly groups that are focused on personal responsibility, skill building, anger management, and more.  

“What makes ManUp Iowa unique is that it provides mentoring in a group setting,” Smith explains. “Not only do youth have access to a positive male role model who serves as their mentor, they also have access to an evidence-based curriculum and many more program components that enhance the youth’s overall experience.”

Smith adds that many ManUp Iowa participants enroll during middle school and stay with the program through high school graduation. 

“I believe this shows the level of engagement and consistency we have with the youth we serve,” he says. “It also shows that youth enjoy the program and understand how important it is for them to stay until they reach adulthood successfully.”

Yet another statewide organization with an emphasis on mentorship is Al Éxito. Launched by the American Association of University Women—Iowa’s Diversity and Equity Committee in 2006, Al Éxito grew out of the need to support Latinas in developing a plan for higher education and to expose them to college and campus life. In fact, the program is one of the first of its kind to address issues young Latinas face that keep them from earning a college degree. 

Dawn Martinez Oropeza, executive director of Al Éxito, shares that the program began as a weekly mentorship program for 8th grade girls. 

Today, Al Éxito serves students of any gender from 6th grade through college in 18 communities across the state through two college prep initiatives and wraparound services like tutoring. Students also have access to mentors. 

Oropeza explains that Al Éxito participants outscore other Latino students in their schools, as well as the general population. 

“We know culturally based, after school programs do provide better outcomes for students,” she says, adding that Al Éxito consists of encouraging cultural leaders who lift up the students. “Many times, it’s the first time they’ve worked with someone who looks like them and comes from the same background.”

Oropeza shares that the program works to ensure all students have what they need to be successful and stands beside them on their journey to college as much as possible, especially because the majority of program participants have parents who don’t have a degree. 

One success story Oropeza highlights is that of a student who started Al Éxito in 6th grade and is now in their second semester of college. They grew up with a single mom who’s undocumented and failed nearly each one of their high school courses during the pandemic. They were bright and had potential, though, so Al Éxito assigned them a tutor and mentor who worked to get them back up to speed. Now, they’re on a full-ride scholarship to a culinary program. 

“We’ve been able to pick up things along the way to make sure they’re staying engaged and aware of what’s needed,” Oropeza says. “We prepare our students as best we can.” 

Like Al Éxito, By Degrees Foundation partners with area schools to increase high school graduation rates and postsecondary readiness through an expansive, K-12 culture of future-focused planning and saving. 

“By Degrees Foundation believes education is a community effort and recognizes the transformational impact incremental changes can make on a student’s life,” says Director of Development Amanda Shetler Whitmer. “We engage community partners to address barriers and incorporate postsecondary and career readiness activities, financial education, and asset building for whole neighborhoods of students.”

Founded in 1990 as the Des Moines “I Have a Dream” Foundation, By Degrees Foundation currently partners with Findley Elementary, Harding Middle School, and North High School to build an interconnected, future-focused culture across all schools. One way they do so is through mentorship. 

For example, 3rd graders write pen pal letters to education majors at Central College, and every Monday during the fall 2022 semester, Drake University football players stopped by the 1st grade class to read books and talk about the future. By Degrees Foundation also facilitates Findley Elementary’s partnership with Everybody Wins Iowa!, pairing students with an adult mentor who reads and works with them every week.

And at North High School, the organization works with teachers and local organizations to develop mentoring and internship experiences for students in specific fields. The Future Doctors program, for instance, pairs eight North High students of color  interested in the medical field with Des Moines physicians for a multi-year mentorship and internship experience.

“We recognize that our work is most effective when we meet present-day needs while providing students with life and career skills that will support their future,” Director of Development Amanda Shetler Whitmer explains. “This perspective helps us reach our ultimate goal of more central Iowa students graduating from high school ready to pursue fulfilling careers.”

Ultimately, United Way of Central Iowa’s ELI donors make a direct impact on each of these organizations through their generous support. Thanks to ELI donors, youth in central Iowa are able to thrive and grow because of the mentors they’re provided with.    

Topics: Education Success, Education Leadership Initiative (ELI)

Chase Young

Written by Chase Young

Chase Young is the Director of United Way of Central Iowa's Education Leadership Initiative.