Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Arkansas recently kicked off the youth mentorship program Beyond School Walls after piloting it last year. The success led to the program’s expansion this year.
The United Way provided a two-year $52,000 grant to support the program, whose mentors comprise area employees of retailers and retail suppliers. The mentors work for Walmart, Sam’s Club, PepsiCo, Nestle USA and General Mills.
Youth participants include students at Rogers Heritage High School. Mentors and youth meet twice monthly, allowing participants to seek advice, discuss career aspirations and set goals. Mentors provide insights into the professional world and offer guidance as mentees prepare for post-secondary education, employment, enlistment and entrepreneurship.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to witness the positive transformation in these young minds as they engage in guided discussions with their mentors,” said Michael Partain, workplace mentoring manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Arkansas. “We see them grow in confidence, acquire essential life skills and develop a clear vision for their future. It’s truly inspiring.”
Mentors and youth meet at school mostly, but they also take field trips, such as to the corporate partners’ offices. Last year, the pilot ended with a Sam’s Club Home Office tour.
This year, the program doubled the number of participants to 90 youth. The number of corporate partners rose to five.
Lance Johnson, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwest Arkansas, said a Walmart employee group that ran a youth mentorship program internally helped to bring the Beyond School Walls program to the area. The group was looking for an organization to provide the structure and curriculum.
“That’s where we stepped in to help,” Johnson said. “A United Way grant paid for us to build out this curriculum and launch the pilot last year.”
Partain said the program’s goal is to help the youth achieve success as they define it. He added that he’d like to see the program continue to expand and add more schools and corporate partners.
“We’d like to see this program gain traction and bring in people from other walks of life who are willing to come in and mentor these youth,” Johnson said. “Even though we have these new partners coming on this year, we still need a few more volunteers to match every child one-to-one.”
Brandon Nikolish, sourcing director for Walmart, said the Beyond School Walls program helps youth understand the value of education and its opportunities.
“There’s folks beyond their schools who are interested in them being successful,” he said. “That’s helpful to realize there are more people in your corner than you might imagine.” The program also helps to “address some of the fears and hesitations to what’s after high school.”
Nikolish has been a mentor since 2009, starting with the program Walmart offered internally. The Mi Futuro program started with middle school students in Rogers before expanding to other school districts regionally. After the pandemic, the program was retooled as Beyond School Walls.
“We want kids to think beyond what they’re going to school for every day,” he said. “There’s a bigger reason and a lot beyond what they might see from a 10th-graders perspective.”
Christy Bray, associate merchant for Walmart, said the program allows mentors to get to know the youth better because it’s one-to-one, and she’s still mentoring the same youth she was assigned last year.
She said she explained to her mentee the differences between college and high school and took her on virtual tours of college campuses. Bray’s mentee would be the first in her family to attend college.
Walmart merchant Kayla Bhalla has been a mentor since fall 2022. The Gravette native said she became involved in the Beyond School Walls program to give back to the community.
“It’s been great to see our Northwest Arkansas youth and how willing they are to learn,” she said. “They want to be positive influences in their lives. They want to succeed.
“It’s nice to see the youth and business people collaborating and building these relationships.”