by Christopher Lee

Four years ago, a seed was planted in Richmond, Va. It was a seed that if nurtured properly, would have the potential to grow tall, grow strong, and spread its roots across the city. The seed could bear fruit that would sustain an entire city and help to ensure the prosperous future of its citizens. Those that planted it knew that they would have to be passionate, watchful, and committed to its growth, or lose the opportunity to nourish entire communities. That seed was Higher Achievement and four years later the potential of that which was planted is being fulfilled.

I began as a volunteer mentor with Higher Achievement four years ago and was introduced to, what I felt, was a great program that could change the educational landscape of Richmond. The program started strong with a hefty and committed staff that believed in its vision: Talent is everywhere, but opportunity isn’t. The middle school age years are pivotal for children in many ways; from the developmental, social and biological standpoints there is no time in a person’s life with such significant learning to be done and radical change happening inside and around them.

This has also been true of the program itself: In the years following its foundation, Higher Achievement has, as many non-profits do, persevered through fluctuating budgets, staff transitions and the learning curve of just how to fulfill its mission as a brand new affiliate to a nearly 40 year old program. Graduating our first class of scholars last school year however, was a milestone that brought staff and supporters both old and new back together to celebrate. We were curious as to where we would go from there.

The vision and the mission were strong but in order for growth to continue we needed to strengthen our expertise and provide more support for our mentors. Enter the Virginia Mentoring Partnership’s Americorps VISTA program. The end of last summer saw the advent of the Mentor Program Coordinator VISTA position through the Virginia Mentoring Partnership. After years of mentoring and working with the program in many facets, I was asked to fill this position. I was tasked to recruit, train and support our mentors with the help of VMP’s expertise and best practices in mentor support and retention. Such a position had never existed within the program. Excited is the word I would use to describe my feelings about becoming a VISTA. Knowing that my sole job was to build capacity for a program that I had such admiration for, bringing my experience and the resources of the Virginia Mentoring Partnership to bear in the process could only strengthen Higher Achievement.

As a VISTA I have been able to see the organization from an entirely new perspective. Seeing what worked, what didn’t work, and the reasons for both. Understanding for the first time how the processes moved and how my empowerment as a VISTA would allow me to directly affect those processes was exhilarating. I was afforded a great deal of power to improve areas where I saw that it was needed, which was daunting in the beginning but understanding that there is no progress without a struggle helped me push through. As a result of my time as a VISTA, so far, I have been able to increase mentor satisfaction, make many connections in the community and within my VMP VISTA cohort, but more than that I have been able to do my part to water the seed that was planted.

Almost halfway through this school year we discovered that we would receive the i3 grant (Investing in Innovation) from the U.S. Department of Education which would allow us to expand in all of our affiliates as well as bring back in staff positions which had to be eliminated previously due to budget constraints. We were renewed. Not long after that we received word that we were to receive the Virginia Mentoring Partnerships Outstanding Mentoring Program of the Year Award 2014-2015 for the entire state of Virginia. We were validated.
Since the time of its inception here in Richmond, Higher Achievement and those that cultivated it have weathered many storms and gone through many trials and tribulations. It could not have been done without the efforts of so many who share the vision.  Our mentors, staff, donors, supporters, Virginia Mentoring Partnership and many more. Through it all, the roots have grown deep, the tree stands tall, and the branches have borne fruit that is already flourishing; and this is only the beginning. Higher Achievement is the seed that grows.