In the fall of 1995, Sue and Jerry Schlichter founded a program that now has been known to reach more than 1,000 children in the St. Louis Public School District. In an effort to enrich the lives of children in the city’s most challenged neighborhoods, the two began pairing community volunteers with kindergarten students at four St. Louis elementary schools, officially beginning Mentor St. Louis. That first year, they managed to connect more than 250 mentors with 320 kindergarten students, and the numbers have only continued to grow.

“We believe every young child deserves a chance to have a guide, a friend and a mentor,” says Mentor St. Louis executive director Keith Antone Willis Sr. “We have two goals: to educate and to inspire St. Louis public school children.” The literacy-based program now reaches children in kindergarten through sixth grade, touching on a different theme each month, such as the contributions of African-Americans, careers, diversity and different cultures. Grade-by-grade curriculum guides are provided to help with the mentoring. The children read a book and complete an exercise in accordance with the monthly theme and then, in a typical one-hour meeting, the program uses fun and functional props, like hats and bracelets, to help with discussions.

The goal of the program is to create one-on-one pairings, but some mentors work with two students. With permission from the students’ parents, mentors can do more than attend the one-hour sessions, such as taking their students on field trips. The program, in turn, encourages four monthly contacts. “This is what makes our program so special, the fact that the children have someone who genuinely cares about them, it’s just a safe haven,” Willis says. “And the mentors expose their mentee to a whole other world.” One former participant, now in the 10th grade, wrote an award-winning essay about her mentor taking her to the synagogue and the Saint Louis Science Center. “What a powerful story,” he says. Those are the kind of relationships we’re talking about.”

Willis says Mentor St. Louis ranks together in quality with the largest school-based volunteer groups in the St. Louis Public School District. “And we have a very diverse program. Our dedicated volunteers hail from West County, Illinois and the city and include all different cultures, religions and ages. I just sat with two sisters who have been with the program 10 years,” Willis recalls. “Their brother, also a mentor, died last year, but the sisters keep coming. They mentor in the same school they attended back in 1945.” And, he notes, the program not only benefits the children, but the volunteers as well. “People really enjoy mentoring students, they get something out of it.”

The program has succeeded in keeping its doors open for 13 years, relying solely on grants, foundation awards and private donations. “We’re a stand-alone organization. We don’t have any sister organizations or funding from the United Way or Lutheran Family Services,” says Willis. “We raise all of our own money through events and through the kindness of people who believe in the program.” Support from the community was felt during Mentor St. Louis’ endowment challenge, when an anonymous donor matched $300,000 of the $350,000 it raised.

There are just six staff members who manage more than 600 volunteers and 700 students. “We refer to ourselves as ‘the little engine that could,’” Willis says. “We do a lot as a small organization. In 1996, First Lady Hillary Clinton endorsed the program as one of the best in the country for improving academic achievement.”

Today, Mentor St. Louis faces two challenges: raising enough money for its ongoing enrichment programs and keeping and increasing its pool of mentors. Four hundred students are on the waiting list for a mentor, and Willis would like to see them paired with caring adults. “If we matched a mentor with every child in just the eight schools we serve, we would have 1,500 mentors,” Willis calculates. “I think one of our biggest challenges is getting the word out that there is a need and this is a great program.”

Willis envisages eventually having the mentoring program in every St. Louis public school. “That would be incredible. We’d have to grow the staff, and get funding to do that, but as we build the infrastructure, I really would like to see that happen,” he says. “I also would love to track the students who graduate from the program, to see what kind of life they made for themselves.” It’s easy to conclude that their lives will be richer, thanks to the mighty efforts of the Schlichters and Mentor St. Louis.