20 for 20: Onnolee Smith

Meet mentor coordinator, Onnolee Smith, a longtime resident of Albany. She has volunteered with Sponsor-A-Scholar since 2008, as a mentor, and a mentor coordinator. In addition to her work with Sponsor-A-Scholar, she has been instrumental in the Albany Fund for Education, and is a passionate supporter of Albany's public schools. She first heard about Sponsor-A-Scholar through our former executive director, Bill Corbett. Over the years, Onnolee has connected us with dozens of dedicated mentors. Her husband, Larry, currently mentors Alfonso, a senior at Albany High School.

Onnolee's first mentee, Kwe Asia, her son, Xzavier, and Onnolee's daughter, Ali Smith.

Onnolee's first mentee, Kwe Asia, her son, Xzavier, and Onnolee's daughter, Ali Smith.

When did you become involved with Sponsor-A-Scholar?
In 2008, Bill Corbett encouraged me to become a mentor; he made an excellent case for supporting local students. A year later, he thought it would be good to have a mentor coordinator for Albany High School. That’s when Marilyn Kaplan and I took on the role.  

What do you do as a mentor coordinator?
In the beginning, we recruited mentors and hosted gatherings for Albany mentors and Scholars. As Sponsor-A-Scholar has evolved, we now do more to help support the mentors in their relationships with their students--troubleshooting challenges and keeping things running smoothly. 

What would you tell a new mentor who is just starting out with a student?
Count on the first few months with your student being extremely awkward. The first time you get together will feel like you're on a blind date--with someone who's not your age and from a very different background. (It's helpful to plan some kind of activity that you can do together - a walk through a park or a visit to a museum.) Don't expect everything will magically fall into place. It takes work.

Remember too, while most or your relationships are 50/50 give and take; this one is not. You'll probably be giving 80 percent. You're the adult-- your student is an adolescent with lots of growing and learning ahead. After saying all this-- it's absolutely worth it. Being a mentor will enrich your life and is likely to provide you with one of your most valued relationships. 

Why do you choose to support Sponsor-A-Scholar?
We will all need to pull together for the next generation to thrive. Becoming an educated member of society is difficult and we need to help one another. Providing promising students with additional support and encouragement helps to insure that they have the opportunity to be successful. 

What is the most important piece of advice you would share with our Scholars?
You need to work hard, never give up, and push yourself to try things that may not be comfortable to you. When things get tough, ask for help. Stay strong, believe in yourself, follow your dreams and you’ll be successful.  

How does supporting Sponsor-A-Scholar make you feel?
I always tell mentors that they’ll gain more out of the experience than they’ll give. My world has expanded by being involved. I get satisfaction from giving back as a mentor, and I get satisfaction from connecting mentors and students together and watching them thrive. I’ve gained an understanding of what life is like for folks on a different economic scale, and I’m more connected to my community. Best of all, I’ve got a wonderful relationship with a terrific young adult, who is still an ongoing part of my life. 

Did you have a mentor in high school/college or as you started your career? 
I don’t recall a specific mentor, but there were teachers and professors who were important to me. Most of all, it was my parents who set a clear expectation that I’d go to college and choose a career path that would work for me and they gave me the support and encouragement to do so. 

What is your wish for our Scholars as they graduate from college and begin their careers?
Each Sponsor-A-Scholar student is a special and unique individual – I hope that each builds a path to a satisfying life. I also hope they consider giving back to their community in some way--mentoring a young person or volunteering.

What would you say to someone who is considering making their first gift to Sponsor-A-Scholar This is a program that makes a difference in the lives of the students and their families in so many ways. Your support, in whatever capacity, means that students will reach goals that they may not have otherwise achieved. 

Thank You Onnolee (and Larry)!