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Biz Mentors Score Big with Students

Freshman Campus student Shelby Brown and his “Big,” Sam Wilkening, have gotten to know each other during 90-minute mentoring sessions at Kentwood-based firm Mill Steel Co.

“Shelby is focused on school and wants to get his GPA up a little, into the 3.8 range,” said Wilkening, Mill Steel material applications manager. “He plays trumpet in the jazz band, which qualified for states, and he’d like to live in France at some point in his life.”

Now it’s Shelby’s turn. “Sam really loves his job. He’s really outgoing and likes movies based on comic books.”

The pair talk about other things as well. Wilkening is helping Shelby prepare for his future, when he will be part of the workforce. They are among 14 freshmen and 14 Mill Steel employees participating in the Bigs in Business program, which is run in partnership with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, through D.A. Blodgett St. John’s Home.

The program consists of six mentoring sessions at Mill Steel, during which students meet one-on-one with employees for group sessions on topics centered on success after high school. Focuses include skills required at work including reliability, problem solving, conscientiousness and effective communication.

Employees also share what they know about managing a budget, student loans and mortgages, credit card use, checking and saving accounts and even retirement.

“I’ve learned a lot about how to buy houses and why your credit score is important,” said freshman Kalil Adams.

Sam Wilkening, Mill Steel material applications manager offers advice to freshman Shelby Brown

A Peek Into the Workplace

Mill Steel is the first company to participate in Bigs in Business with Kent County schools. Kent School Services Network community school coordinator Kyle Ringwald, who works at the Freshman campus, and Martha Boks, Big Brothers Big Sisters program manager, launched the program as a pilot with hopes of expanding it to more schools and businesses. Boks attended a Big Brothers Big Sisters national conference about Bigs in Business and wanted to start it in the Grand Rapids area.

“A lot of this stuff we don’t have time to cover in the classroom,” Ringwald said. “These are real-life situations… Students are getting a first-hand look at what it’s like to have a corporate job and what it takes to be successful in the workplace.”

Boks said the goal is to get students “thinking big” about goals. The hope is that students gain perspective on their futures, thinking long term about graduating from high school and going on to college or a trade.

For the Bigs, it’s a positive way to share their experiences with kids.

“It’s awesome to have an employer that supports mentoring during the word,” Boks said. “Everyone benefits. They get to have a meaningful relationship and influence a youth’s life in a very positive way, and it’s totally supported by their workplace.”

Wilkening agreed. “It’s an interesting opportunity to give back to the community through mentorships. I don’t usually get the opportunity to do something like this, so I think there will be personal growth as well.”

Shelby said he’s learning things he thinks will help him in the future. “This will teach me how to not act up and to do the best I can.”

Freshman Mo’quia Clark and her mentor, Amanda Allspaugh, Mill Steel marketing manager, sat in Allspaugh’s cubicle and discussed college savings plans and setting them up at a young age.

“I thought it would be cool to mentor to a young person in the community and make an impact on them, and hopefully lead them in the right direction toward college and doing well in school,” said Allspaugh about signing up to mentor. “I like sharing knowledge of my mistakes and my past, and what helped get me where I am today.”


Big Brothers Big Sisters Workplace Mentoring Program

School Services Network

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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