Photo by Urban Alliance staff.

This article originally ran in the Windsor Reminder News on August 1, 2013. Article written by Calla Vassilopoulos, Reminder News staff.

For the last few years, Windsor Police Chief Kevin Searles and other community members have been concerned about the increasing education achievement gap in Windsor public schools. The group began to take into account some of the stressors from the family perspective, which could be adding to the issue.

As a result, the team of dedicated citizens worked to create a program to help low-income youth and their families establish a foundation for educational and mental health stability. Ascend Mentoring is the “best of both worlds,” according to Executive Director Ricardo Herrera.

“You can take a kid and mentor him and let him hang out with a responsible adult for a couple hours a week, but if he goes home and dad is in prison and mom can’t make ends meet, or there are mental issues or other household issues they don’t get help for, it’s going to limit what you can do for the child,” said board member Lisa Boccia.

The goal of the program is to use youth as a “portal” to working with families to resolve domestic issues and create long-term solutions, according to Herrera. Throughout the planning stages, Ascend acquired partnerships with businesses and social service organizations locally and in the greater Hartford area. Ascend, which focuses on mentoring youth, also offers services for adults in the family. Upon request, the organization will assist families with mental health concerns, employment services and financial rehabilitation.

“Those are the things that a lot of studies and research shows really impact the family in a negative way,” said Herrera. He said that kids who have experienced long-term poverty in their family often suffer from high levels of stress and as a result have issues in school.

In order to make sure the new program has services to fit their needs, each family is interviewed by assessment coordinator Jaime Ricker, LCSW. Families who have issues which cannot be adequately addressed by Ascend at this time are being introduced to the appropriate social services.

The youth who are accepted into the program are placed in one of the two tiers. The first tier is for youth at risk of dropping out of school, but not quite near expulsion, as well as those who have had interactions with police officers, but are not yet in the system. Tier two is for youth who may have been involved in the juvenile system or have more complex issues in general, according to Herrera. “This is a really big push for intervention for those youth,” said Herrera.

Mentoring will begin in the middle of August and is divided into four parts over the course of 12 months. For three months at a time, mentors will concentrate on different aspects of youth development. The first stage focuses on establishing a positive relationship between the mentor and the mentees, which will happen at small events, gatherings and general meeting areas organized by Ascend. 

Each mentor is required to go through a three-hour training, which provides techniques used for youth development. The stages following the introductory period will be determined by the feedback received quarterly from families, youth, mentors and board members.  In addition to mentoring, Ascend also plans to provide after-school activities designed to increase the youths’ educational and leadership skills.

“We really want them to be a part of this, especially the young people,” said Herrera. “If the young people feel their word has power to change things or create things here, they’re going to be more invested.”

For more information on receiving services or becoming a mentor, visit