SMILES Mentoring Program – Making a Difference in SouthCoast Workforce Development

By James H. Mathes
Special to The Standard Times

The following is a three-part series on the SMILES mentoring program which appeared in the New Bedford Standard-Times. The author, Jim Mathes, is the executive director of the organization and Vice President of the New Bedford Economic Development Council Board of Directors.
Part I: Changing the demographics of under-educated workforce
October 7, 2008
When asked what SMILES – the SouthCoast Mentoring Initiative for Learning, Education and Service Inc. – does, I usually pause, then reframe the questions. Because while what we do is important, why are we doing it is the key to understanding the mission of SMILES.
In 2002, while serving as president of the New Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce, I had an opportunity to spend part of a day with a gentleman who was a gatekeeper in economic development. As a site selection consultant, his job was to help expanding businesses decide the best place to locate new facilities. We were focusing on medical device manufacturers, a growing international industry that we believed matched well with our workforce.
When I asked the gentleman why so many companies were locating in places like Marlborough and Westborough, but weren’t coming here to SouthCoast his response was sobering: He told me our region’s educational attainment demographics were among the worst he’d seen. Because of that, he said he would not recommend locating a facility in our region if his client required a workforce with a significant number of well-educated people. His concern was that his client would not be able to find the caliber of employees they needed.
As the local Chamber executive, I spoke of our region’s many strengths, including a workforce that is known to be hard-working and dedicated. But that wasn’t the issue. Education was the issue. His interest was in strong minds, not strong backs. He was pleasant enough about it, but flatly stated that we “could try to talk our way around bad demographics, or we could try to change them.”
The fact was, and is, our education demographics are a barrier to the kind of economic opportunities we want and need to create for ourselves.
I contacted UMass Dartmouth’s Center for Policy Analysis, and they quickly provided me with the education demographics this gentleman had cited. I had asked for information on the levels of education achieved by the workforce in New Bedford and the four bordering towns of Dartmouth, Freetown, Acushnet and Fairhaven. In that one-page report, I saw the indisputable facts the consultant referred to in our conversation. The aggregated workforce of these five communities was approximately 75,400 people. For our workforce to simply be average when compared to workforce educational attainment levels statewide, an additional 14,000 of our workers would have to become high school graduates!
Our region being host to an under-educated population isn’t a recent phenomenon. It is the result of a chronic and high dropout rate dating back many generations. But something is different now. Something has changed in our community that is exacerbating the problem of having too many people in our workforce who lack a basic high school education.
During the past 20 or so years, the employment base in New Bedford experienced dramatic change. In what amounts to little more than a single generation, thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs disappeared from New Bedford. This isn’t unique to our city or region. Our nation has made conscious decision to compete for jobs in the knowledge-based economy, and in doing so enacted trade agreements and domestic policies that have resulted in our factories closing. Virtually all of the products formerly manufactured in New Bedford are still being made. They’re just being made in other places and other countries with dramatically lower costs, particularly with respect to the cost of labor.
The new jobs that have come to New Bedford during this same period of time tend to fall into two broad categories: jobs that pay well and require at least a high school education and jobs that don’t have significant educational requirements but pay less than what is termed a “living wage.”
The New Bedford Business Park provides a good example of the present condition facing job seekers. Tom Davis, the highly effective leader of the Business Park’s success during the past decade, has been quoted as saying only one of the Park’s 35 companies will hire a non-high school graduate. Compare that to what it was like for job-seekers in the late ‘80s!
In a single generation, our employment base has changed to one that requires better educated works, yet we continue to have the same number of students drop out of school every year. That circumstance represents rapid and profound change, and carries a number of social ramifications with it.
Every year, hundreds of school dropouts enter our society as young adults lacking the basic skills necessary to take care of themselves, much less being able to start and care for a family. Every year, the disconnection between our changing employment base and our dropout-fed, under-educated workforce worsens. The predictable results are problems that manifest themselves in terms all too familiar to us – poverty, despair, depression, crime, violence, gangs, substance abuse and more. The simple fact that we are an under-educated population bears much of the responsibility for these social ills.
So when people ask me what we do at SMILES. I take the time to first tell them why we are doing it. From its beginning in 2003, the mission of SMILES has been to help children realize their personal and educational potential through participation in a large-scale, one-to-one mentoring program. The key words in our mission statement are education, children, mentoring and scale.
We are attempting to be part of the solution to one of our biggest problems. We are doing it because no one is going to come from Boston or Washington or anywhere else to do it for us. Simply stated, as a community, we will solve the dropout problem or we will continue to suffer it.
In Part Two of this series, to be published next week, I will write about what it is we do, which is offer school-based mentoring programs to help students in our region do better in school. I’ll also address the issue of how large we hope to become as expressed in terms of the number of mentors matched with students in our programs.
We’ve set out to achieve social change. It isn’t easy to do that. We’re making progress, but we have a long way to go. One this is certain – doing nothing is not an option.
Part II: What is SMILES mentoring and why does it work?
October 14, 2008
The SMILES mentoring program was founded for one reason — to try to be part of the solution to our region’s chronic high dropout rate. Our goal is to build the SMILES program to involve 3,000 volunteer mentors in quality-driven school-based mentoring programs in SouthCoast schools.
In just a little more than two years, SMILES already has more than 600 volunteer mentors working their magic with their student “mentees.” While that number officially ranks SMILES as one of the largest mentoring programs in Massachusetts, the reality is we still have a long way to go to reach our goal.
The most common question asked when SMILES was starting out was “why mentoring?” The answer was rooted in our research, both locally and through national organizations working to find solutions for communities like ours that suffer too many children dropping out of school year after year, generation after generation. Our research took us to the National Dropout Prevention Center, affiliated with Clemson University.
The center advocates “Fifteen Effective Strategies for Dropout Prevention.” Mentoring is one of four Basic Core Strategies among the 15. It is also the most labor intensive, as it takes one mentor for every mentee. In our region, using historical dropout statistics, we believe there are at least 3,000 students who could benefit from our school-based mentoring program. Obviously, that is the number that led to our goal for volunteer mentors.
Our next step was to team up with the best people in Massachusetts for help in creating a quality-driven school-based mentoring program. We affiliated with the Mass Mentoring Partnership, which has proven time and again to have been a good decision. MMP continually provides professional services to SMILES, such as staff training, volunteer mentor training, fund-raising support and, perhaps most importantly, assistance in developing a quality-based program adhering to national mentoring standards.
Our next important step was gaining local support throughout the community. First and foremost was developing a strong working relationship with the public schools. In New Bedford, former Superintendent Mike Longo opened every door for us and made it clear that our mentors were welcome in New Bedford schools. The same is true under the leadership of our new superintendent, Dr. Portia Bonner. In fact, Dr. Bonner traveled to New Bedford prior to starting her new job to meet with the SMILES staff and Board Chairman Joel Burns to learn more about our programs and goals. Suffice it to say that SMILES enjoys a strong working relationship in the New Bedford Public Schools. The same is true in Fall River, where SMILES programs have also flourished during the past two years.
Another key to our early success was the strong leadership of the SMILES founders, who came from a variety of backgrounds. We had the support of leaders from the education community, business organizations, human services providers, faith-based organizations and virtually every political leader in the region. The strong and active support of our founders is largely responsible for our rapid growth and accomplishments. They’re all busy people, and they are a very effective group.
Having set the stage to bring the SMILES mentoring program into local schools, the founders chose to run a three-year pilot program at two New Bedford middle schools. Approximately 80 mentor/mentee matches were formed and their progress was tracked. We had confidence in our program model, as it was based on other successful programs. At the end of the pilot, we were pleased to see improvements in mentee performance as measured by attendance, conduct and grades.
With those results, the decision was made to establish SMILES as a not-for-profit corporation and obtain charitable status with the IRS by becoming a 501c3 charitable non-profit. With substantial financial support from the Amelia Peabody Foundation, SMILES was able to become a professionally staffed non-profit, and we began the task of creating and growing our mentoring programs. Hard as it is to believe at times, that was just two and a half years ago. Our growth has been the result of a lot of hard work, determination and maintaining focus on what it is we intend to achieve. It has been both challenging and heartwarming.
There are already hundreds of great stories of mentoring relationships that are changing the lives of students by helping them realize their personal and educational potential. And there you have it — the answer to the question, “What is mentoring and why does it work?”
It’s all about the “relationships” we help create and support between volunteer adult mentors and their student mentees. Everything we do is intended to either create or support a mentoring relationship — 3,000 times over, if we achieve what we’ve set out to do.
While SMILES uses a straightforward school-based program model, the fact is every SMILES mentoring relationship is different. They are as different as every relationship we all enjoy in our lives. I mentor two boys in SMILES programs, and they are distinctly different relationships for me. It makes sense, because they’re distinctly different boys.
When you mentor, you share a little bit of yourself with your mentee. You offer guidance, friendship, encouragement and support. The single best indicator that a mentoring relationship is working is when it’s obvious that both the mentor and mentee trust and care about each other.
Because until that point, “mentor” and “mentee” are pretty much just titles to define how you’re spending time in a program called SMILES. We know the mentoring “relationship” is what SMILES is all about. We staff every program and continually pay attention to every SMILES mentoring relationship. We try to do everything possible to create and foster the trust and caring necessary for those relationships to work. It’s called “match support,” which is an important function of a quality-based mentoring program.
The SMILES mentoring program is the right program for this time in our region. What we at SMILES are doing is offering a quality program that is user friendly for volunteer mentors and effective for mentees.
We have chosen the school-based program model because we believe it offers the best chance to grow mentoring to the scale necessary to truly impact a big regional problem — too many students dropping out of school.
We think it will work. We already have more than 600 volunteers. We only need another 2,400. If you’re interested in becoming a mentor, give us a call at (508) 999-9300 or visit our Web site at
Part III: Seeking ‘600 SMILES’ mentors by year’s end
October 27, 2007
Editor’s note: This is the last of a series of pieces submitted by SMILES, the SouthCoast Mentoring Initiative for Learning, Education and Service, in support of the “600 SMILES” campaign. The goal of the campaign is to reach a total of 600 mentors for New Bedford schoolchildren.
The list keeps growing. And growing. And for best results, it should keep growing.
At the beginning of this month, the tally of New Bedford volunteers with the SouthCoast Mentoring Initiative for Learning, Education and Service (SMILES) was hovering around 170. Now, 225 people have committed themselves to spending an hour a week at middle and elementary schools in the city, while many others are going through the qualifying process.
600 SMILES, the non-profit group’s recruiting campaign lasting the duration of October, is at the root of the swell in ranks.
Much of the effort was based on daily stories in The Standard-Times, which organizers deemed the best way to reach the most people.
“SMILES is extraordinarily fortunate to merit this level of support from the newspaper,” said the organization’s founder, Jim Mathes. A mentor himself for nearly four years, Mr. Mathes knows the stories shared by volunteers and the students they formed relationships with were powerful, but he hopes the accounts act as more than momentary eye-catchers.
“What I hope happens with the readers is they won’t just think about it and consider it to be a good thing for New Bedford, but they’ll step up, call my office and become a mentor,” Mr. Mathes said. “That’s what has to happen for us to be successful.”
Because of 600 SMILES’ success, a new program is in place at Carlos Pacheco Elementary School, and existing programs have been filled at Normandin and Keith middle schools and Gomes Elementary School. Independent mentoring has also gained steam at New Bedford High School and Carney Academy, Winslow and Carter Brooks elementary schools, along with Roosevelt Middle School, where mentors and students meet for one-to-one time rather than a structured hour.
Mentor training sessions, which used to take place monthly, now are held once a week to accommodate a steady stream of new volunteers. The success of the recruiting campaign has SMILES poised to place 600 mentors in New Bedford schools by the end of the school year and is another step toward its ultimate goal — to place 1,500 SMILES mentors in city schools by 2011, Mr. Mathes said.
Nearly as important is what 600 SMILES proved about New Bedford residents, said Lynn Poyant, director of operations for SMILES.
“There are many people who are willing to volunteer their time in a very personal way to help another individual and ultimately, the whole community,” she said.
Ms. Poyant welcomed her increasing responsibilities as SMILES literally grew every day during the campaign and hopes that will continue as word continues to spread.
“Many more people need to get involved for this to truly make a difference,” she said. “The challenge will be to increase efficiency while still maintaining relationships with the mentors, because SMILES is all about building better relationships across the entire spectrum of diversity.”
Mentors in the SMILES program spend an hour a week mentoring a student in a New Bedford public school. To volunteer, call SMILES at (508) 999-9300, or send an e-mail to

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