Portland High School mentoring program marks 20 years of changing lives

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PORTLAND — When Mark Crasnick retired from a career in the insurance industry in 2011, the Portland High School graduate and self-described die-hard Bulldog thought he might return to his alma mater to do some volunteering.

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to waste time. I wanted it to be valuable,” Crasnick said.

His inquiries led him to the Portland Mentoring Alliance, and he was paired with high school junior Hussein Mohamed.

A year and three months later, Mohamed is set to graduate. Crasnick has guided him through the college application process and taken him to college interviews; Mohamed hopes to study criminal justice at Kaplan University.

Now, as Mohamed prepares to move to the next step in his life, his mentor said he can’t imagine not being part of the teenager’s life.

“I find it extremely rewarding,” Crasnick, a Falmouth resident, said.

It’s just one success story among many as the Mentoring Alliance marks its 20th year.

More than 1,100 students have participated in the program, started in 1992 by then-PHS Principal Dana Allen, Richard Balser and Kevin Healey, current director Glenn Nerbak said.

Any student can participate in the mentoring program, but it started as a way to provide support for students who were at risk of dropping out. At first, it wasn’t terrifically successful, Nerbak said; students who weren’t committed to school were often equally disinterested in forging a relationship with an adult mentor.

The program picked up steam as increasing numbers of students came to Portland from other countries, first from Cambodia and Vietnam, then from the Balkans, and now from central Africa. Today, about 80 percent of student participants speak English as a second language, and sometimes as a third, fourth, or fifth.

Most of the mentor-mentee relationships work out these days, Nerbak said. Perhaps 10 percent do not, he said, sometimes because the student isn’t committed to the program, and sometimes because the mentor changes jobs or moves away. In many of these cases, the student is successfully paired with a new mentor, Nerbak said.

The minimum requirement is that mentors spend one hour a week with their students, Nerbak said. Usually, mentors help the students prepare for graduation and life beyond high school, but “some of these mentors go above and beyond.”

“It’s deep personal connection that makes for a great mentoring relationship,” he said.

“I really gained so much that I didn’t expect from the mentor program,” said Pacifique Jabiro, now a second-year student at Southern Maine Community College. “For me, it’s like having a second dad,” he said about his mentor, Chris Rosado.

Jabiro, who came to the United States from Rwanda in 2009, said he was hesitant to speak in English at the time, uncertain of his language skills. Rosado could see his discomfort, Jabiro said.

“I think he realized that I know some English but I’m afraid to talk to him. He gave me his email address so I could talk to him most of the time,” Jabiro said of those early days with his mentor.

Slowly, they built a rapport, and eventually, “every problem I had I went to him,” Jabiro said.

With the help of his mentor, Jabiro went from a quiet student to writing and speaking English fluently, and from one who had no hope of higher education to receiving a scholarship from SMCC. He gained confidence, and a better understanding of America.

“It changed my life,” Jabiro said.

Nerbak said he usually has more students requesting mentors than mentors who are available. The mentors include college students, middle-aged professionals, and retirees, he said.

To become a mentor, volunteers must fill out an application, pass a background check, and attend a short orientation session.

Current mentors and mentees will celebrate the program’s anniversary on Thursday, April 26, at Portland High School with a slide show and presentations on the program’s impact on participants.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.

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Falmouth resident Mark Crasnick, right, began working with Hussein Mohamed in 2011 through the Portland Mentoring Alliance to prepare the Portland High School senior for college. The mentoring program, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, has matched more than 1,100 students with adult mentors.

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