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A mentoring story: Brenda and Paula, together for life

BRENDA MALDONADO and her mentor Paula Burkhart share a laugh. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

BRENDA MALDONADO and her mentor Paula Burkhart share a laugh. Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

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When Brenda Maldonado, then a fourth-grader, arrived in Sonoma as “the new kid in class” at Sassarini Elementary School, she was shy, a little unsure of herself and ready to reach out for someone who would help her, even if she didn’t completely understand why.

The Maldonados had moved here from Modesto to be closer to extended family and two of her cousins had filled her in – they had mentors who were “really cool.” Brenda told her mom she wanted a mentor, too, and they filed an application.

Paula Burkhart had returned to Sonoma after an extended stint in academic management at the University of Oregon, and was working part time again at UC Berkeley before deciding to retire and work on her wish list. “I always wanted to have a relationship like mentoring and to volunteer at a high school,” she recalled, “so I treated myself to both those activities.”

The Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance matched the pair. It turned out to be quite perfect that Paula’s family had moved when she was in third grade and she still remembered how hard it was. “I could relate to what Brenda was feeling,” Paula explained.

The first day they met at the Sassarini Mentor Center, Brenda was “kind of scared but kind of excited” until Paula suggested they work on an art project together. Then, any awkwardness evaporated. “We just kind of connected right away,” Paula said.

Now, seven years later, Paula is still putting her heart into knowing what Brenda needs and how she’s feeling. And Brenda understands completely why mentors are totally cool.

The minimum requirement to be a mentor is to go to the student’s school once a week and spend an hour together in the supervised mentor center, where there is a vast array of activity tools for the mentor and mentee to engage in together. It is somewhat typical to work on academics for half an hour, like flash cards or spelling, and then something fun like board games or building a model airplane. Once the mentor and mentee establish a friendship, and with the parents’ permission, many go on to enjoy off campus outings.

The first place Paula took Brenda was to the Gen. Vallejo Home, a place Brenda had passed by many times, but had never visited. She enjoyed it so much, Brenda brought her mom to see the historic site soon afterward.

The Mentoring Alliance also offers many group activities for mentors and mentees, and Paula and Brenda never miss an opportunity. They love the art classes, and especially the cooking classes, and Paula believes Brenda has truly grown from leadership-inspiring events like the ropes course and a trapeze lesson. “I watched her go up a 25-foot ladder and she looked like she’d been doing it all her life. I’m just in awe of her. She is not just academically capable, she is physically capable. I’m so proud of her.”

Brenda is now a sophomore at Sonoma Valley High School and a 4.0 student taking honors classes. She is on the tennis team and is participating in the College Bound program at the Boys & Girls Club. She is already geared toward college and, even with her great grades, isn’t so sure she would be if it weren’t for Paula.

“I talk to Paula about it. She has all this knowledge about college. It didn’t seem like a possibility before I talked to her about it,” Brenda said. Knowing college is out there, Brenda is encouraged to strive, and the phrase “full ride” is part of her vocabulary.

Paula and Brenda love to bake cookies together, and shopping and lunches out are favorite activities. Brenda enjoys their friendship so much she told Paula she wanted to be a mentor when she grows up.

Paula encouraged her not to wait, and Brenda now teaches a science program for younger kids at the Boys & Girls Club, a program she designed and had approved herself.

“Paula influences me in a lot of different ways, like how I can help people the way she helps me,” Brenda said. “It’s great knowing you have someone there for you who is an adult and has life experience.”

Brenda has a very supportive, loving family. “Her mom is a rock,” Paula said. “They are very close.” Brenda also has very attentive adult siblings, but when she arrived here, she was very withdrawn. Her mother does not speak English, her father lives far away. So, it is has been with Paula’s extra guidance that Brenda has been able to see through new windows into a bigger vision for her life.

Paula continues to learn, too. “There are so many facets to it. Knowing Brenda and her family has informed me about her culture,” she said. And Paula is continually amazed by Brenda. “She has a lot of self determination and self discipline. And she’s fun!”

Paula whole-heartedly encourages others to become mentors. “It encourages you to open yourself up a little bit and keeps you in touch with young people. I tell people ‘Do yourself a favor and let yourself have this experience. You’re supported by the Mentoring Alliance all the way.’”

Paula said she is sometimes asked how long she will know Brenda. Her standard answer is, “I hope to always have her in my life.”

Brenda can’t resist affirming. “We’ll be together forever.”

For more information about how to become a mentor, visit sonomamentoring.org or call 938-1990.

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The Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance is hosting an information reception for people who are interested in becoming mentors from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5, at MacArthur Place, 29 E. MacArthur St. There will be complimentary wine, appetizers, door prizes, and “no-obligation” information.