Aspiring to new heights
National Mentoring Month spotlights a local fifth-year senior teen and her supportive mentor
Myla Taitano was labeled a "super senior," but she wasn't feeling all that super about being a senior again.
"I moved from Washington to Oregon, so I couldn't graduate last year because Oregon has different requirements," the 18-year-old said while sipping her first cup of herbal tea. "Last year was kind of a difficult year for me because last year was when I realized that I wouldn't be able to graduate on time with the rest of my class, and that really bothered me."
Taitano, the middle child in a family with five kids, moved to Prineville in the summer of 2015 with her siblings, her mom, and her mom's boyfriend to live with her grandparents — so they could have a roof over their heads.
"To this day, it still bothers me that I'm a 'super senior,' even though there's really nothing to the name. When people find out, they kind of assume that I just wasn't smart enough to graduate, or something," Taitano said. "So that was a big challenge for me, it was coming to terms with the fact that I wouldn't be graduating, and Kate really helped walk me through that."
Kate Soliz — Taitano's mentor through the ASPIRE program — helped guide her along and made her feel super about being a "super senior."
"I did come to that conclusion that I wanted to stay another year just so I can build up my GPA," Taitano said, pointing out that she had let her grade point average drop, but this is her year to better herself and bring her grades back up.
January is National Mentoring Month, and several organizations across Central Oregon have partnered with Better Together to promote mentoring. Better Together, a nonprofit program of the High Desert Education Service District, works with more than 200 cross-sector partners to improve outcomes for young people from birth to career. ASPIRE is one such partner.
ASPIRE, Access to Student Programs in Reach of Everyone, is a mentoring program that matches trained and supportive adult volunteer mentors with middle and high school students to develop a plan to help them meet their education goals beyond high school.
The program has been a part of Crook County High School since 2011. CCHS College Readiness Coordinator Kyla Salmond reported that 11 volunteer mentors work with 95 high school students.
"We use a matching form to interview students about their needs and interests and we pair them with mentors based on their experience, profession, education and interests," Salmond explained. "We are always looking for caring and teachable adults who would like to volunteer their time to encourage and mentor high school students."
Soliz, the mother of four daughters in their 20s, worked as an ASPIRE coordinator at CCHS for a few years but now works with OSU Open Campus as an AmeriCorps VISTA. She first met Taitano in September of 2015 when she offered a four-week career/college preparedness class at Pioneer Alternative High School, where Taitano was a student. After the class, Soliz invited anyone interested in being mentored to talk to her.
And Taitano did — a decision she has never regretted.
"When they first gave their presentation, I was just kind of going to school just to go to school," the teen said.
She had already attended three other high schools, and she found it tough to keep her grades up with her family's frequent moves. She was going to Pioneer to make up some credits. At that point, she wasn't interested in college and didn't think she could get anywhere after high school. She just wanted to get her diploma — she'd be the first in her family to do so.
"So when they came in, they told me about the FAFSA, and they told me about different scholarships," Taitano said. "It gave me a purpose to actually continue on, but my thing was, I didn't know what to do next, and I knew that I could apply for these things, but I had no idea."
Taitano began meeting with Soliz to form an education plan and eventually met each Tuesday morning for an hour.
"I want to be a teacher because I want to support people the way that Kyla and Kate have supported me," she said.
Taitano now volunteers with the Crook County Middle School AVID students. She was a juvenile tutor with kindergartners last school year. She was part of the Link Crew, a transition program that helps freshmen feel comfortable in high school. She volunteered at Camp Tamarack with fifth-graders for outdoor school and plans to do it again this coming summer. And last summer, she worked with second-graders as an educational assistant during the Kiwanis Summer School.
"Working with little kids — that really got to me. I felt really connected with the kids I was working with, and so I do want to work with younger kids in the elementary level," Taitano said of her career aspirations.
Although she's not sure of her plans after earning her diploma in June, Soliz is helping her with her financial aid application, and they're researching various colleges. Meanwhile, she goes to Pioneer in the morning and takes government and an elective class at CCHS each afternoon. She's a sounding board for her two younger sisters who face similar challenges, and she continues to meet weekly with Soliz.
"I feel it is my responsibility to encourage Myla to hold onto the vision of attending higher education and come alongside her as she navigates her way through the maze of tests, applications, scholarships and financial forms, " Soliz said. "She does all the work; I just basically act as a coach."
During their mentorship, Soliz has learned the value of being consistent, and she's learned from Taitano's resilience.
"She's is quite a wise and articulate young woman. I appreciate listening to Myla because I hear how she cares for her family, how she cares for her community, how she values different teachers," Soliz said, adding that Taitano has the wisdom to seek out assistance from other teachers and counselors.
Taitano tells other teens who are thinking about having a mentor to "just do it."
"Even if you weren't trying to go to college or you weren't trying to do anything, it's nice to just have somebody who's there to listen and support, because sometimes that's what Kate is," Taitano said. "Sometimes we don't talk about the next step of going to school, sometimes we just talk about the things that I'm going through currently."
Soliz says that some of the most life-altering decisions are made during the teen years.
"Having gentle and caring conversations with adults who are genuinely interested and engaged in students' lives can impact them positively and perhaps influence the trajectory of that teen's life," she said. "While mentoring is not rocket science, it does require that the person is teachable and flexible."
To adults who are considering being a mentor, Taitano says there are so many kids out there like her who know what they want to do but don't know how to get there.
"Having a mentor that I can rely on and know that they'll be there no matter what, it really helps motivate me to try," the teen said. "I've gone through a lot of things, and Kate has helped me through a lot of it, too. Kyla and Kate were the ones who convinced me into higher education, and they didn't even know."
Interested in being an ASPIRE mentor?
Contact Kyla Salmond
Phone: 541-416-6900, ext. 3115