Pahola Almonte understands the power of support. She knows the importance of instilling young students with the confidence they need to succeed academically and socially. This is because she was a part of the Big Brothers, Big Sisters mentoring program, which motivated her to be where she is now, a graduating senior who works extensively to help kids like her understand where they can go in life.
Almonte was born in the Dominican Republic, and her family immigrated to New York when she was four, later moving to Willimantic. Even as a child she exceeded expectations. She was involved in multiple extracurricular activities and spent her evenings studying, in part because her parents were apprehensive to let her to wander around Willimantic. She describes her elementary school experience as difficult, where she was often teased for being a teacher’s pet.
In fourth grade she was enrolled in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program, which works to give not only academic assistance, but also self-confidence and personal guidance. There, she spent her time after school with a UConn student named Dana, who became Almonte’s inspiration for her future.
“It was nice having someone that I could talk to, wouldn’t judge me, and help me become more open,” Almonte said. She describes Dana as the primary reason she wanted to go to UConn and to be on the opposite end of the program when she became older.
While serving as a big sibling in the program–working with children and teenagers from a poor urban community–she has stepped into a strenuous leadership position. She is one of the site managers at Windham Middle School, the same district she grew up in. Since her involvement, the Windham mentoring program has grown rapidly in quantity and quality.
“We’re doing more because our program site wasn’t run well before us. No one wanted to take on the responsibility,” Almonte said.
With a co-manager, she runs the largest Big Brothers, Big Sisters operation in the state with 51 pairs of siblings. Most sites only have 25.
Almonte says that many of the students they work with are troubled and need help, having been referred to the program by teachers and guidance counselors. Part of her job is finding proper mentors with passion and patience.
“We look for people that are outgoing and have a genuine desire to help children, and people who are willing to adapt.” Almonte said. “It’s not easy to get middle-schoolers to open up to you. A lot of people who are bigs have not been in these situations or have dealt with children in underprivileged districts.”
When she is not working at the Institute of Latin American studies, conducting research with the Department of Communication, holding down a job at the Student Union, or keeping up with her classwork, Almonte is crafting an effective mentoring program. Her duties include planning the itinerary for the weekly sessions, organizing transportation for the bigs, giving and receiving feedback from the participants and facilitating events once they get underway.
“It’s very stressful, but I try to organize everything so I can just get it done back to back,” Almonte said. “I also get people to help me so I don’t feel like I’m in this by myself. It’s given me a lot of valuable life skills. I’ve always been a super motivated person and kind of a perfectionist; so I have a drive to do everything to the best of my ability.”
She describes an afternoon with bigs and littles as beginning with tutoring and help with homework, then they’ll move onto an activity that teaches life experiences. This week’s focus is on health and wellness, with the session focusing on nutrition, yoga as well as other facets.
“But we are also doing bingo and news bowl, which is like a middle school version of ‘Jeopardy,’ Almonte said. “So we also try to make things fun and competitive.” She says that competition is an excellent way to motivate the littles.
Almonte commented that it can be difficult to work with people in early adolescence; they tend to be cliquey and sometimes just refuse to cooperate.
“I’ve had to take on that disciplinary role, which is an interesting dynamic,” she said. “It’s hard sometimes because I want them to see me as their friend, but they also know that they have to listen to me. It doesn’t help that I’m the same height as them.”
But the payoff when all the pieces come together, she says, is exceptionally rewarding.
“Last week three bigs said it was the best day they had spent with their littles. I’ve seen children grow, and it makes me feel good to know that we’re facilitating the change,” she said.
Almonte is a history major with a minor in human rights. After graduation she wants to go into human rights law and works with refugees overseas. She is currently applying for internships in the criminal courts of Yugoslavia. But she sees her involvement in Big Brothers, Big Sisters as never ending.
“It’s been a part of my life for so long, I would just not be able to stop.”