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Local business mentors have big impact on students

Fifth-grader Javar Lowe reacts after sinking a shot while playing basketball with his mentor

Fifth-grader Javar Lowe bounced a mini-basketball off the cafeteria wall and watched it rebound into a makeshift hoop, an empty trash can. “I made it!” he shouted, a huge open-mouthed grin spreading across his face.

Greg Smolka cheered along, ready to take his shot. The purchasing manager at Walther-Trowal, a machinery manufacturer in Kentwood, was spending 30 minutes mentoring Javar, just as he does every Friday.

Smolka and six co-workers, including Ken Raby, vice president and general manager of U.S. operations for Walther-Trowal, are “Friday Friends” at Discovery, each week, mentoring seven Discovery Elementary School students whom teachers have selected to take part in the one-on-one mentorship opportunity.

Fourth-grader Kaden Thomas retrieves a basketball from a makeshift hoop, an empty trash can

Ken Raby, whose wife, Betsy, is a paraprofessional at Discovery, said he was inspired to bring the majority of his staff on Friday mornings to invest in community children. He hopes to continue the program next school year. The Rabys previously helped connect mentors to Kentwood schools through Kids Hope.

“This is not a team-building organization. This is about mentoring kids,” Raby said.

Employees, who are away from work for a full hour, spend 10 minutes on academics with their students using math flash cards, reading or finishing worksheets, before spending the final 20 minutes just having fun: playing board games, shooting trash can hoops or launching a football across the cafeteria.

“I grew up homeless for 12 years of my life. If it hadn’t been for people like this who mentored me, I don’t think I’d be here today.”Walther-Trowal Purchasing Manager Greg Smolka

Purchasing Manager Greg Smolka takes a shot

For Smolka, it’s time well spent. “I grew up homeless for 12 years of my life,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for people like this who mentored me, I don’t think I’d be here today.”

Javar said he’s learned about Smolka by spending time with him. “He’s responsible and takes care of himself. When I grow up I’m going to choose something I’m good at and not be someone who’s bad.”

Customer service representative Molly Hensch sat on the floor with Nadia Mutoni, a Young Fives student, who was busy identifying letters on flash cards and eating cheese crackers. “She’s fun,” Nadia said of her mentor. “We play together. We do our letters.”

“I love it,” Hensch said about mentoring Nadia. “It’s wonderful. I think more employers need to do this.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese 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 and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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