LIBN Q&A with Jean Lahage Cohen of Mentor New York

Q&A with Jean Lahage Cohen

Written by Claude Solnik

Mentor New York, with offices in Hauppauge and Manhattan, was created this year by combining the Mentoring Partnership of Long Island and the Mentoring Partnership of New York. As executive director, Jean Lahage Cohen leads an organization serving nearly 500 mentoring programs and 57,000 young people. She talked about the importance of mentoring to children and the mentors who provide the help.


What does Mentor New York do? We start and support mentoring programs by partnering with organizations that want to help young people. That includes businesses, churches, temples, schools, government offices and youth agencies like a Boys and Girls Club or the YMCA.


What is mentoring? All our work is evidence based on research. Mentoring is a consistent relationship between an adult and a young person for a year with regular contact.


Who are the mentors and the mentees? The mentees are school-age kids ages seven to 24 from all walks of life. We believe all kids need mentors to grow up healthy. Most people find their own informal mentors – a coach, a teacher, your aunt or uncle, the guy who gave you your first job. The kids in our mentoring program are generally there because they can’t find their own informal mentors.


Is this mostly poorer neighborhoods? It’s all over New York. There are programs for kids with fewer economic opportunities, also for kids in foster care, kids who lost a parent, who have a parent deployed, in jail. Lots of kids are in mentoring programs. We have kids whose mother has breast cancer and is dying.


Is this mostly minorities? A lot are minority kids, but not all of them. Kids living in poverty have more strikes against them. It doesn’t mean those are the only kids who need mentors. We have programs in towns like Syosset, Cold Spring Harbor and Manhasset. It’s not just poor communities.


What age are most of the people being mentored? From first grade through early college. Mostly elementary to high school. Most colleges have a mentoring program for incoming freshmen. Generally, they’re self-sufficient. But we train new staff and do special workshops. On the LIU Post campus, they have the Promise mentoring program for incoming freshmen.


Who are the mentors? They are people from all walks of life. They can be retired businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, custodians, teachers, former teachers. Rivkin Radler [a law firm] partners with Summit Lane Elementary School in Levittown. They meet with the students, play games, read books, talk about school. Certilman Balin’s lawyers go over to Walnut Street Elementary School in Uniondale. They play word games. It’s somewhat academic. They work on vocabulary. They bring a brown bag lunch and talk. That program is called “Lawyers involved in Kids’ Education.”


Do a lot lawyers do this? In the city, we have more companies with several hundred employees that have mentoring programs. It could be an accounting firm or ABC/Disney. We don’t have so many businesses on Long Island with that many people.


Does this ever lead to jobs? It does lead to jobs. The programs I just described are elementary school kids. The Certilman Balin program just celebrated its 10th year. Some of the kids are in college. They might take some of the kids for internships or summer jobs. They have brought in kids and offered them positions.


How many people have you helped with mentoring? I’ve trained 12,300 people to be mentors. That’s not what I did when I finished college. I got my M.B.A. and was a business consultant for Fortune 500 companies. For 25 years, I’ve started up and provided support for mentoring.


How did you get involved with mentoring? I was a kid who grew up poor with a dysfunctional family. My eighth-grade math teacher, Kay Sullivan, made me think it was OK for girls to be smart. My parents told me boys wouldn’t like you if you were smart. She changed how I thought about myself, so I wanted to go to college to study applied math when only three universities in the United States gave degrees in applied math to women. She took time with me and convinced me to believe in myself.


How does mentoring help the future workforce? We have kids growing up in families where they’ve never seen anybody go off to work. They don’t know what work is like and can’t imagine working in an office. When mentors talk about careers, jobs and schooling, it’s opening a window. I thought I was destined to go part-time to a community college. Kay Sullivan made me think I could do anything I wanted to. I won a scholarship and went off to an Ivy League college.


How long do these relationships last? Some are defined times only in middle school. They generally stay in contact. I started with a girl in first grade and followed through tenth grade. Then she got too busy in school. She was the choreographer for the school musical and was on the basketball team. I’m still in contact with her 15 years later. That’s not unusual. It’s not because I’m like Mother Theresa. I went into mentoring because I wanted to do good. I found it was a lot of fun.


How much time commitment is it? Generally, four hours a month, about an hour a week. One episode of “Law and Order.” Generally, it’s a commitment of a school year. Sometimes people stay longer.


Why do people mentor kids? They might remember what it was like growing up when somebody helped them. They keep doing it, because it’s fun. It makes you feel good. You enjoy it. You get to be with somebody young who looks at the world a little differently than you do. My mentee was wearing something with 50 Cent on it. My husband said, “Is that how much it costs?” We were laughing. It’s not part of our day-to-day life, but it’s fun.