Stamford mentorship program graduates first class
STAMFORD — Although Beverly Reyes was getting good grades in elementary and middle school, she faced a lot of frustrations outside the classroom.
First, she failed at flute lessons when she was in fourth grade.
“I was just so bad that I didn’t enjoy it,” she said.
Her mentor insisted she should audition for the Stamford Young Artists Philharmonic when she was in sixth grade. But that “was really bad,” she said.
Her mentor then suggested joining the Young Mariners to learn how to sail, even though Reyes couldn’t swim and was very shy.
“I felt so uncomfortable,” she said. “I did not want to wear a bathing suit. I did not want to go in the water.”
The mentor, Maria Millan, was by her side, helping Reyes overcome each of those struggles. And it paid off.
The 18-year-old, now an award-winning student musician, became a woodwind captain for the Stamford High School band and taught other kids to sail at Young Mariners, now known as SoundWaters.
Reyes is making history in Stamford this month as one of the first three students to graduate Starfish Connection, an initiative launched in 2008 by the late Judy Martin, a reading teacher at Northeast Elementary School and the wife of Mayor David Martin.
Judy Martin, who lost a battle with cancer in November, didn’t get to see her dream come true — the inaugural class of Starfish mentees graduate from high school — but the students largely credit her for their success.
The small and selective program mentors well-performing and underserved Stamford students from third grade until they graduate high school. The growing initiative, now led by retired Stamford teacher and administrator Janet Schneider, will start next school year with 55 mentors and 55 students.
Over the 10-year period, students periodically meet with their mentors, participate in extra-curricular activities, volunteer in the community, are required to read books in the summer, take college preparatory and AP classes and eventually apply for college. Other requirements include maintaining good grades and taking music lessons.
David Martin, who co-founded the all-volunteer organization, said his wife identified the need for a new mentoring program soon after she began teaching at Northeast in the early 2000s. The couple often talked about how many bright students seem fall behind once they reach middle school, or even sooner.
They realized none of the existing mentoring programs tracked a child’s performance over multiple years. Teachers stayed with students for a year or two and guidance counselors for a little longer, but only parents dealt with a child over many years. But parents, he said, sometimes don’t spot every hurdle their child experiences.
“Most of these students will get over most of those obstacles, but they’re going to get tripped up some place,” the mayor said.
It was Lilienthal, for instance, who noticed Anilus needed glasses. As a child, he seemed to enjoy playing musical instruments, but he was having trouble reading.
Despite that and other struggles, Anilus took guitar and piano lessons, taught himself how to play the bass and now plays in the school band.
“I feel like Starfish helped me amplify my strengths, like music,” said Anilus, who’s going to Tufts University to study engineering.
“It’s become a big part of my life.”
Millan, an outreach coordinator for the city, said Reyes is another great example of the work the Martins set out to do.
“She was very, very shy, but Starfish gave her the tools to come out of her shell, exposing her to things that she may have otherwise never be able to experience,” Millan said. “She went from being a very shy child to being a confident and outgoing woman.”
Reyes, who used to think she couldn’t play instruments, said music is now part of who she is.
“I really, really fell in love with it,” she said. “If it was not a requirement, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Millan, who moved here from Spain, said the program also changed her life, especially because she was able to help another immigrant family. Reyes’ family is from Guatemala.
“I relate to them,” Millan said. “I know the struggles that they are going through. And to be able to ease their struggles is very rewarding to me.”
Reyes was accepted to Tufts two weeks after Judy Martin died. The then-first lady, who was Starfish’s executive director, had been contacting the college’s admissions office and was trying to secure financial aid for Reyes.
When Millan rushed to the mayor’s office to tell him the news about Reyes, it was a bittersweet moment for him.
“It was one of my most joyful moments, but also a difficult moment,” he said.
Martin said he and his wife shared the inspiration for the program, but she made it happen.
“Judy orchestrated this thing,” he said.
Judy Martin also helped Carias get an internship last summer at First County Bank.
“I would probably never have that experience if it wasn’t for her,” he said. “It made me think of business in a broader sense to the point where I want it to be a major in college.”
Carias, who’s heading to the University of Connecticut this fall, is the first in his family to attend college
“Starfish gave me a lot of experiences that I probably would never have,” Carias said. “It gave me something to do. It kept me off the streets.”
Herman, a Rippowam Middle School teacher who has been Carias’ mentor, said the decade-long program went by fast and benefited her as much as her mentee.
“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful thing. I’m going to miss him,” he said. “The 10-year commitment is what we signed up for, but they’re going to college... they’re not going out of our lives.”
To volunteer as a mentor, visit starfishconnection.org.
email@example.com, 203-964-2265, @olivnelson