Mentoring and beyond

Connections Mentoring pairs screened mentors with underserved young people (ages 15 to 25) from The Children’s Village as well as Westchester County- and New York City-based agencies, affecting some 91 young lives to date.

Paul Muratore, then a Briarcliff Manor resident, was CEO and president of Talent Partners, a Manhattan-based advertising and talent agency.

“I had the pleasure of working with fun, crazy, kooky people,” he says – and doing very well indeed, so much so that he sold the business in 2015 for an undisclosed sum that set him up for life. But for Muratore, it was never really about early retirement. Since 1985, he has been mentoring youth at The Children’s Village, a Dobbs Ferry residential organization founded in 1851 that is designed to help at-risk youngsters to become vibrant citizens through education, job/career training and, perhaps most important, relationships with adult role models. When he sold Talent Partners, Muratore, who now lives in Manhattan, knew exactly what he was going to do.

“I took my network of relationships and put it into Connections Mentoring,” he says.

The four-year-old nonprofit pairs screened mentors with underserved young people (ages 15 to 25) from The Children’s Village as well as Westchester County- and New York City-based agencies, affecting some 91 young lives to date by offering them a window onto a world beyond the limited one they have known. Muratore has challenged one mentee to take the first step to realizing a dream of being a lawyer by finishing high school. He’s taken others to a SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) event, where they rubbed elbows with singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams, and to a journal writing class at New York University, inspiring them to tell their own stories.

In an aspirational organization of four staffers and many volunteers, Muratore is not alone. Joseph Fergus, managing director of marketing for Oaktree Capital Management, has been working with mentee TJ for three years.

“Joe’s our rock star,” Muratore says of Fergus, who was recently named a Mentor of the Year by MENTOR New York. “But really we have 90 Joes, men and women of various ages and backgrounds.”

To hear Fergus tell it, the relationship he has forged with TJ has been mutually beneficial.

“I’ve tried to do things with him that help him see a potential path forward,” Fergus says. He and the Navy-minded TJ took in an Army-Navy game together and toured the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, meeting with current and retired officers.

“He got to see people and set some goals for himself,” Fergus says. “Most important, though, was taking that first step – graduation from high school. When he graduated, I had tears in my eyes….These kids don’t come from the rosiest of backgrounds. For me, this has been hugely rewarding.”

The coronavirus has, not surprisingly, heaped one more hurdle onto the lives of these young people.

“It’s been very challenging, yes, in many ways,” says Lia Schwartz, Connections Mentoring’s executive director and an Ossining resident. “But one of the encouraging things has been how flexible and creative the mentors are in coping. Think of the isolation the virus has caused and add that these kids are not at home or with their families.”

Mentors have sent bags of groceries to their mentees to help keep them focused.

“The thing about the groceries is that all of us come from fortunate lives and we’re stressed,” Muratore says. Imagine, then, those with less resources. The care packages mean that food is one less thing the mentees have to worry about.

Man, however, does not live by pizza alone. Muratore has also been playing video games with a mentee online. Fergus, who lives in Manhattan, and TJ have also connected on the internet, reading a book about one of TJ’s heroes, Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers legend who was killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 of this year.

“The first thing he said to me after it happened was, ‘Did you hear about Kobe?’” Fergus remembers.

The need that young people have to share the bad times and the good with a trusted adult is only growing, Schwartz says. While Connections Mentoring has started to accept younger kids, she says, the organization doesn’t want to grow too fast. Instead it is concentrating on raising $250,000 now to stay at its current service level and $350,000 per year going forward. It is specifically looking for family foundations or grant organizations for multiple years of support.

“We can’t take every kid,” Muratore acknowledges. “But then not every kid wants to be part of this.”

For those who do, Connections Mentoring is there for the long haul. Recently, TJ, who has had to move around a lot in his young life, asked Fergus, “How long will you be my mentor?”

Fergus’ reply sums up the organization’s philosophy:  “As long as you’ll have me.”

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