Mentors and promises

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Michelle Zamora (left) and Susie Gallo Courtesy photo

Susie Gallo, 22, of La Mesa, is entering her last year at SDSU majoring in interdisciplinary studies with focuses on criminal justice and American Indian studies cultural proficiency. The youngest of six children, she is the first in her family to receive a college education, living much of her life in and out of the foster care system. Gallo said she had been in and out of the foster care system since she was a baby.

“My entire life, my mother struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction,” said Gallo. “This affected me greatly. I was very stubborn going into the system until one day I just needed help. I was couch surfing and house hopping. I was a teenager and tired of making adult decisions. I decided it was time and I went back into the foster care system. Once I was back in the system I faced a lot of hardships, but I got through it.”

Gallo said her introduction to Promises2Kids was a “great relief” and it helped her financially, provided her with academic support and employment to help her get through college.

Promises2Kids is a nonprofit organization founded nearly 40 years ago that responds to the needs of foster children and provides support to children removed from their home due to abuse and neglect. Its four core programs are the Polinsky Children’s Center, Camp Connect, Guardian Scholars and Foster Funds. Gallo is currently employed at the Polinsky Children’s Center.

“It is a great way to give back to the foster care community because I get to work alongside with the youth and show them that I can do it as someone that comes from the same background. If I can do it, they can do it,” said Gallo.

Gallo said Promises2Kids has done many things for her, even sending out monthly care packages. “This is especially great for me because growing up nobody had ever sent me a care package and that just tells me that there are people out there that care for me,” she said.

Through the Guardian Scholars program, Gallo was matched with Michelle Zamora who has helped Gallo navigate through college, finances, and helps her in making smart decisions.

“Michelle Zamora is literally one of the best people in my life right now,” said Gallo. “It’ll be a year in August since she became my mentor. We usually hang out, go to Starbucks, go out to eat and she helps with many things. She gives me great advice when it comes to anything and everything, even if I need help cleaning. She provides unconditional support. She doesn’t judge me. She is such a good person and I am really thankful to Promises2Kids because they matched us so well.”

Gallo said that Promises2Kids is a great way to give back and keep in touch with the community. She said the organization is always looking for mentors. “So if anybody wanted to be a mentor for us foster care kids, it would mean a lot to us because my mentor has made an incredible impact on my life and I would not change this for the world. Eventually I will definitely become a part of the Promises2Kids mentor program,” she said.

Zamora, said that she was introduced to Promise2Kids around eight years ago when her husband’s boss invited them to the Promise2Kids gala. She said they attended on and off since, contributed financially, but it wasn’t until last year that they both became more actively involved beyond being on its executive board.

“I was asked to participate in the Guardians Scholarship Committee and served on that committee last year and this year,” said Zamora. “After serving on that committee and reading more than 50 essays from the applicants I really felt compelled to get more actively involved in the organization.”

Zamora said her match with Gallo is wonderful, meeting the first time last September. Since then, they meet about once a month.

“I think it started off a little slow. It took a while to develop the relationship that we have today. Its been great and a lot of fun watching Susie grow. I feel that she has changed a lot since our first interaction,” said Zamora. “She’s like a family member. She’s a sweet young woman and I feel honored and blessed to have her in my life and to be a part of hers, and to see the changes I’ve seen in her. This makes me really happy.”

Zamora said being a mentor is a lot of work, but that “it is so rewarding that it doesn’t feel like work. I’ve volunteered for other organizations in the past, but I feel that the connection that you get to have being a mentor is like no other opportunity that I’ve ever had in my life.”

Tonya Torosian, Promises2Kids CEO said that the organization is reaching its 40th anniversary next year, beginning as the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation before changing its name in 2008. She said it is best known for building the Polinsky Children’s Center, an emergency shelter for abused and neglected children.

Susie is so exceptional.

“We built it, but then gave it as a gift to the county, so the county actually runs it,” said Torosian. “But it was our first real community project. Since then we’ve evolved, and we do our own programs. Guardian Scholars is one of our programs.”

Torosian said that the Guardian Scholars is nearly 10 years old and has had time to perfect it and what they learned is that the most important thing is the mentoring.

“Studies and research nationally shows that you take all of the foster kids that age out of care and those that have ‘made it’ the one thing that is consistent is that they have an adult in their life that they can rely on,” said Torosian. “In foster youth, most of them don’t have that. That is why we feel the success of this program has been reliant on providing that to the youth. Foster youth put up walls, don’t trust very easily and it can take a long time to really accept someone new in their life. So, we take our mentor matching very seriously because we know that likely, Michele and Susie will be connected for life. We have many matches just like that. They participate at weddings, are there for births of children and all of those things that happen long after our program. They become family.”

Torosian said students apply to its Guardian Scholars program they do an essay, meet with a staff coordinator and they get a picture of the youth’s likes, dislikes, personalities and experiences. She said they do the same thing with its mentors.

“Interviews, training and screening processes, we find out for them as well what are their trigger things, what do they believe that they can handle, why are they doing this helps us in finding the best match,” said Torosian. “We don’t match on area of study, like attorney to attorney student. We are looking to match them together on strengths, areas of challenge to make sure that personality wise they are a good fit.”

Torosian said to help Promise2Kids, donations are helpful because it is 100% philanthropy funded. No government contracts for services, so everything it does is because of community members. The other thing is that we could not do this without volunteers. So Camp Connect has one paid staff and we use about 200 volunteers.

“We are always looking for those that want to serve as ‘camp counselors’ for an afternoon activity or a three-day overnight camp,” said Torosian. “We also always need mentors. Right now, for August we need to get matched in the next 60 days, we are short 20 male mentors and five female mentors. In our program we are accepting 200 students this year, so we want to make sure that everybody has the same benefit that Susie and Michele have. Our students are all 18 and older, so they could be in vocational training programs or college.”

For more information visit www.promises2kids.org.