As the First Lady of New York in 1983, Matilda Cuomo wanted to create a state program in which children facing hardships are paired with a mentor who would support them. But before her husband, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, implemented the program, Matilda wanted to test out the idea herself as a mentor to a girl, Ellie Delgado, who had anger problems and was considering dropping out of school to return to Puerto Rico where she would get a job as a prostitute.
“It was so hard at first, I said ‘What am I doing to myself?’” recalled Cuomo, the mother of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “But I said, ‘I have to fight this, I have to find out what’s bothering her.”
Eventually, Delgado opened up to Cuomo about the problems she had with her mother, including the fact that Delgado had to support her three sisters when her mother was unemployed. After hearing this, Cuomo got Delgado’s mother a job at Catholic Charities in Albany, where she still works today. She also encouraged Delgado to go to college, and Delgado is now doing the medical billing for the Albany Medical Center.
“The point is if I could do it with Ellie, I said to myself, ‘This is right, this is needed,” Cuomo said.
By 1984, the program was being run in schools throughout the state, and was adopted in California. This year, the program was brought to East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School for ninth- and 10th-graders. On Dec. 13, Cuomo visited the school to distribute books from Amy Zaslansky, the founder of “Book Fairies,” a non-profit organization that collects reading materials for people in need in New York, and to monitor how the program is doing.
“I think there’s such a future out there for you,” Cuomo told the group of about 20 mentors and their mentees. “What we’re hoping is that this program can stimulate you even more to help other kids who are even younger, who need a little bit of help.”
As part of the program, juniors and seniors in the high school visited the ninth and 10th grade homerooms earlier in the school year. During those homeroom classes, the junior and senior mentors played games with the younger students, and spoke to them about social issues, such as bullying and drug use. As the mentors learned more about the freshman and sophomore students, they found out which of them may have social or emotional issues and met with them after school. If a student had any severe issues, the mentor would report it to Maureen Schutta, the school’s social worker, who would have a follow-up meeting with the student.
Senior John Pareti told Cuomo that he applied to be a mentor because he wanted to guide younger students. “Personally, I did this because I know that when I was in 10th grade, I didn’t have anyone to look out for me, so I knew I wanted to help out,” he said.
Adult mentors also work with 10th-graders at the school, with a goal to help students build positive relationships, develop self-esteem and make positive changes in their lives. The program is free for schools, mentors and mentees.
April Francis, the director of the program at the school, said that she has already seen some benefits since it was instated at the school in September. “We wouldn’t know if they have issues sometimes, it doesn’t always come on our radar,” Francis said.
In September, Superintendent Lisa Ruiz said in a statement that she supported the program. “This program is one component of our goal to serve all students’ academic, personal, social and emotional needs as they reach for success in school and beyond,” she said.
To find out more about the mentoring program, visit www.ny.gov/programs/new-york-state-mentoring-program.