Seniors help freshmen cope with high school life
By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Even though it was many years ago, Matilda Raffa Cuomo said she still remembers how intimidated she felt when she first walked into Midwood High School as a freshman.
Cuomo, who was a student at Midwood in the 1940s, recalled how much she respected the students ahead of her, especially the seniors who knew their way around the building and looked comfortable in the classrooms. “You looked up to them,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle.
Luckily, today’s teenagers are getting a helping hand in learning the ropes of high school, thanks to a program that Cuomo, the wife of the late former Gov. Mario Cuomo and the mother of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has developed and nurtured over the years.
Midwood High School, at 2839 Bedford Ave., is a new participant in the New York State Mentoring Program, a project that Matilda Raffa Cuomo chairs. The new program involves older students serving as guides to freshman. “It’s peer-to-peer,” Cuomo said.
The mentoring program, which was only recently launched at Midwood, has already attracted 50 students. When Principal Michael McDonnell was first approached about the program, “he immediately said yes,” Cuomo recalled.
Cuomo said she’s proud that the program is shaping up to be a big hit at her alma mater. “I hit upon gold,” she told the Eagle.
Under the program, seniors will be showing younger students how to navigate the tricky waters of high school life so that they can stay in school and graduate.
The mentoring program will give freshmen a big self-esteem boost, according to Cuomo, who said the younger students can look at their senior role models and say to themselves, “I want to be just like them.”
But the seniors can get a lot out of the program, too. “When you volunteer, it shows your humanity,” she said.
The mentoring program is administered through the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.
Kids all across New York state need some type of mentoring, Cuomo said. “There are kids who are failing and in danger of dropping out of school. We can’t let that happen,” she said.
Since education is the key to a better future, it is imperative that students stay in school, she said.
Peer-to-peer assistance is just one aspect of the New York State Mentoring Program. The backbone of the program consists of business leaders and other professionals who sign up to volunteer one hour a week to mentor elementary school youngsters.
The volunteers, who undergo a special training program that Cuomo carefully crafted, help kids with their homework, read with them, offer advice and most importantly, listen to them. The mentors also encourage the children on such things as the importance of getting proper nutrition and taking their vitamins.
Cuomo was the leader of a special committee that came up with the idea for the New York State Mentoring Program back in 1987, during her late husband Mario Cuomo’s tenure as governor.
Cuomo, a former teacher, said she wanted to find a way to help kids from troubled backgrounds.
She used her experiences as an educator and her skills as a mother when she sat down to draft the mentoring program. “You realize your children need someone to look up to,” said Cuomo, who is the mother of five children; Andrew Maria, Margaret, Madeline and Chris.
Cuomo recalled how each one of her children enjoyed the individualized attention she gave them by spending one-on-one time with them when they were growing up, even doing simple things like going shopping. “I understood it was important to do that as a mother,” she told the Eagle.
When she started the mentoring program 30 years ago, she said Mario Cuomo gave her great leeway in the development and implementation of the project. “He left it up to me,” she said.
During its initial run (1987-1995), the program helped more than 10,000 students.
Cuomo urged the volunteers, who came from all walks of life, to “use the talents that you have” to reach the kids on an emotional and intellectual level
And Cuomo didn’t just run the program. She also served as a mentor herself.
The mentoring program was discontinued in 1995 during the Pataki administration. George Pataki had defeated Mario Cuomo in the 1994 gubernatorial election.
Fast forward to 2015.
In his State of the State address that year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he was bringing back the New York State Mentoring Program to help at-risk kids. The governor asked his mother to serve as chairperson. She recalled that he told her, “You have to keep it up. It’s important.”
Cuomo is also the founder of another program, Mentoring USA, an international mentoring program.
Cuomo has vast experience in children’s issues and has written extensively on the subject. Her 1999 book “The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent People Recall Their Mentors,” featured celebrities like Diane Sawyer, Rosie O’Donnell and Joe Torre paying tribute to the mentors who guided them in their lives.
According to her biography on the Mentoring USA website, Cuomo led New York state’s participation in the United Nation’s World Summit for Children in 1990. In 1994, she was invited to the Republic of Malta by the International Steering Committee of the U.N. to launch the International Year of the Family. Three years later, she was invited by then-President Bill Clinton and Gen. Colin Powell to participate in the President’s Summit for America’s Future.