Veterans aim to mentor youth in North Philly
Vets in the Hood, Inc., along with other veterans and volunteers, is launching a mentoring program for students at Edison High School in Hunting Park.
Setting the right example and steering youth toward the right path has long been the objective of elders looking to pass down lessons and wisdom to the younger generation.
In North Philly, Walter Collins aims to do his part in the process, taking on the responsibility of helping students navigate their way through high school and life.
Collins is project director of Vets in the Hood, Inc., an advocacy organization that helps veterans get the medical assessments necessary to receive benefits to ensure access to physical and mental health care. Now, Collins and his group have developed a mentorship program in partnership with Thomas Edison High School/John C. Fareira Skills Center in Hunting Park.
The program, which started at the beginning of the current school year, focuses on underclassmen as a way to help students transition and adjust to high school. Collins expects the program will offer training in a number of fields, such as life skills, physical fitness, financial literacy, graphic and performing arts, and urban farming.
Edison was chosen as the high school to receive this program for one essential reason.
According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the federal government, Edison High School had the highest number of casualties of any high school in the nation during the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The school has established a memorial plaque, honoring the lives lost during the conflict.
Collins, a Vietnam War veteran and 1961 graduate of Edison, said the program is an opportunity for veterans to give back.
“Vets in the Hood are always looking to go beyond the scope of helping veterans,” Collins said.
After serving in the military, veterans often struggle to reintegrate back into society upon returning to civilian life. Whether due to trauma, a disability, or difficulties finding a job or obtaining a higher education, veterans often face a daunting process in deciding what’s next for them.
That's why members of Vets in the Hood, Inc., along with the Buffalo Soldiers and United Buffalo Warriors Association (two other groups involved in the initiative), hope this mentorship program provides a meaningful purpose for veterans while also benefitting the next generation.
“There is a greater need to reach out to students in a strained community,” Collins said. About 81 percent of the students in Edison's neighborhood are economically disadvantaged.
Ideally, the program will initiate a partnership and rapport between the veterans and the students, with the goal of creating an environment in which the veterans can provide the students with the most relevant advice.
“We want to address the needs of the students, not just what we want to offer them,” Collins said. “We have to be as open as we can because we don’t want to assume we know all the problems that students have.”
By giving the students the opportunity to state exactly how these mentors can help, it provides both sides the opportunity to maximize the purpose and impact the mentoring program can have.
The student body at Edison is about 71.5 percent Hispanic, 25.8 percent Black, 1.2 percent white, and 0.5 percent Asian.
Currently, there are eight volunteers involved in the program but the goal is to expand that number, particularly to include more bilingual mentors. The staff members at the school can largely accommodate the students who have a more limited understanding of the English language, Collins said, but out of the mentors involved right now, there is only one Spanish speaker.
Another aspect of the program will see city professionals and other interested parties coming into the school to talk to the students, providing useful information for their time in high school and beyond.
Eventually, with more support, the goal is to have this program branch out to other public schools across the city and impact even more students. However, at the moment, the focus is on Edison.
“We’re trying to lay our foundation to build up our trust,” Collins said.