BENTON HARBOR — More than 400 students have participated in the local Rotary Student Program, but there is one on whom program founders like to hang their hat.
Amber Thomas, a 2010 Benton Harbor High School graduate, is the oldest of nine siblings, and the first person in her family to attend college.
Now 25, she has graduated magna cum laude from Central State University in Ohio with a degree in chemistry and a minor in criminal justice, and is on pace to earn a law degree from Michigan State University next spring. She’d like to use her law degree in Washington, D.C.
“My involvement with the program was great,” she said. “I met with a lot of people. … Now that I’m entering the profession, I can go back to them and ask them questions and tap into their networks.”
Among the people she met with during her two-year stint in the program were judges Charles LaSata and David Peterson, attorney Richard Sammis and Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey.
It was her high school guidance counselor, Alvin Davis, who suggested she participate in the free program created by the Rotary Club of St. Joseph-Benton Harbor that pairs students with mentors in their field of interest.
“She didn’t know what she wanted to go into,” Davis said. “She was interested in forensic science, in law, but the program gave her a chance to have different experiences.”
After spending some time in the program, she told Davis she wanted to study criminology. Berrien RESA was sponsoring a criminology course at the time, but it was at the same time as her high school forensic science class.
“She wanted to do both,” Davis said. “So she comes back to me and says, ‘I can do both … the forensic science teacher said I could just go to the criminology class, and when I get back to the high school there is still 15 minutes left in his class, and I can just come into his class and do the make-up work.’ So she took both of these classes at the same time.”
Thomas has been a big proponent of the program, encouraging students like her younger brother, Tie’Vonte Wright, to participate.
“I’m the one who told him to apply,” she said. “I told him, ‘You have to do this. You don’t have a choice.’”
Focusing on BHHS
The Rotary Student Program started as a pilot 10 years ago with 10 students from St. Joseph High School.
Now open to all Southwest Michigan schools, the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor club is attempting to push the program to new heights, both locally and internationally.
“It’s a win-win situation,” said Rick Villa, one of the original program committee members and the incoming Rotary president. “Either you never had a mentor when you were growing up, or you did have mentor. So whatever category you fall into, because you’re going to be in one or the other, you are going to say yes to the program, because you want to help. Because someone helped you, or no one helped you.”
“We haven’t had one person turn us down to be a mentor,” said Jackie Huie, one of the program’s co-founders. “Everybody that Mike’s (Huie) talked to, and everybody that I’ve talked to, have said, ‘I wish they had something like this when I was in school.’ Everyone. We haven’t had one person not say that.”
Benton Harbor High School sent students through the program during its early years, but mainly due to staffing reductions – among other factors – it hasn’t participated since about 2010.
That’s changing this school year, as there is a renewed effort to pair students with mentors.
Guidance Counselor Miriam Saleeby is one of several people at the high school – along with guidance counselor Trina Rodez, Rotary liaison Kristi Aubrey, and Alloyd Blackmon, a Whirlpool employee on loan to BHHS to work on the Benton Harbor Promise program – encouraging students to enroll in the program.
“I plastered the brochures (Jackie Huie) gave me,” Saleeby said. “Then I started chasing (students) down, because when they came into the office, very seldom were they able to say, ‘This is what I aspire to be, these are my dreams, this is what I’ve seen someone else do.’ It just seemed like a hurdle to get over.”
The program can help students learn what they want to be, or what they don’t want to be.
“If (students) came in and talked about careers,” said Davis, who is now retired, “there were usually three or four things they’d talk about: They wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief, a businessman. And that was it. There are over 15, 16,000 titles in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. So they need experiences, and their families can’t really provide that for them.
“So when Jackie came to me with the program,” he said, “and she asked me, ‘Do you have three or four students?’ Three or four? I’ve got 30 or 40 I could send you.”
Blackmon has been connecting students with business professionals through Benton Harbor Promise to expose them to more vocations, and said she has seen a lot of the same things Davis did.
“It became really obvious that a lot of kids just don’t know what they don’t know,” she said.
It’s not just the students who benefit from the program, proponents say. The Rotary Student Program rings true with many mentors, because of the school’s history in their lives.
“I get so many company presidents and CEOs who said, ‘I would love to help the students at Benton Harbor High School. I graduated from Benton Harbor High School,’” Villa said. “They are very proud. They stand up straight, and they say, ‘I will help, because that’s my school.’”
BHHS students jump on board
Twenty-two students at Benton Harbor High School have said they want to participate in the Rotary Student Program before the end of the school year – the most from any one school at any one time, according to Jackie Huie.
“We started telling them, this is a chance to actually invest in what you want to do,” Saleeby said. “It’s like a genie. It’s like a dream come true. These are the areas. Anything you want to do, we can find.”
BHHS junior Tim Davis and seniors Cha’kira Jones and Earl Benson are three of the students who have applied to the Rotary program.
Jones, 18, is an athlete who wants to become a physical therapist. She said she figures the program can give her more information about the field before she heads to college.
“Why not take advantage of the opportunity given to me?” she said.
She plans to go to Grace Bible College and study exercise science. In the long run she hopes to open her own physical therapy practice.
Davis, 17, said he applied to the program so he has a better chance at a music scholarship.
“I saw some interesting things on their website, like the program was life changing,” he said. “When I saw that, I got more interested in the program.”
He has played the trombone since fifth grade, and hopes his mentor can help him become a better musician.
He said he’s thought about a career in music, but isn’t sure yet if that’s the path he wants to take. He hopes the program can help him decide.
Benson, 17, said he hopes the Rotary program will help him become a better communicator. He wants to be a nurse someday, and plans to attend Kalamazoo Valley Community College.
“I basically, I hope to learn a lot about ... communication skills and public speaking skills, because I’m a shy person,” he said.
Saleeby said she thinks the program is going to catch on at the high school as ninth- and 10th-graders ask the older students about their experiences.
Jackie Huie, and her husband, Mike, have spoken numerous times about the program at global Rotary International Conventions in places like Bangkok, Thailand, Lisbon, Portugal and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
While more than 400 Southwest Michigan students have been through the program, there is no way to tell how many worldwide have benefited from the student-mentor engagements.
Jackie Huie said she has heard from people in New York and Africa since the Rotary Student Program was featured in this month’s The Rotarian magazine.
She said the program isn’t about Rotary, which finds mentors from without and within its ranks. Rotary is simply the catalyst that makes it work.
With nearly 1.23 million members worldwide, including 150 at the St. Joseph-Benton Harbor club, Rotary offers a large network from which to pull.
“We just use our network to reach out into the community to find these mentors,” Jackie said. “People love to share. They love to share with these kids.”