Top mentor is rewarded in more ways than one

October 4, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

For her work at Skyline High School, Joy Abia was given the Washington State Outstanding Mentor Award. By Tom Corrigan

“For the first time in my life, I had support and was actually seen,” Skyline High School graduate M’Kayla said.

A member of Skyline’s class of 2010, M’Kayla now attends Edmonds Community College and hopes to go to Western Washington University to study marine biology. She said she is the first person in her family to go to college.

Identified only as M’Kayla, the Skyline grad declined to be interviewed for this article. But in April, at an Issaquah Schools Foundation luncheon, she eloquently gave credit for her achievements so far to the mentor she came to know through the foundation-funded VOICE program.

For her work with M’Kayla, that mentor, Joy Abia, was awarded the 2011 Washington State Outstanding Mentor Award by the Washington State Mentors Association.

“I think what Joy does reflects on the work of all our mentors,” said Susan Gierke, director of the VOICE program.

“Basically, what I did was befriend her,” Abia said. “I encouraged her and I gave her hope.”

Those words might sound clichéd or melodramatic coming from some people, but from Abia they seem to just be statements of fact.

VOICE stands for Volunteers of Issaquah Changing Education. M’Kayla said she knows people who look back in their lives and wish there had been some voice to guide and help them. Thanks to VOICE and Abia, she has literally had that voice, M’Kayla added.

A Nigerian native who came to the U.S. in 2008, Abia went through a divorce in 2010 and is raising her 2-year-old son on her own.

“I didn’t want to just sit at home,” she said.

Instead, she started looking around for volunteer opportunities.

“I had always been a mentor in Nigeria,” Abia said.

On the Web

Learn more about the FILL IN foundation-funded VOICE program at

She saw an announcement for the VOICE group and applied. Abia said the organization responded right away and matched her with M’Kayla.

VOICE mentors don’t meet with their matches outside of the school environment. Abia said her first discussions with M’Kayla revolved around why the teen needed a mentor, which at first wasn’t clear.

“I found out her foundation in math was very shaky,” Abia said.

M’Kayla talked about Abia getting her to read books outside required assignments, including a volume on overcoming adversity.

Just as important as the academic work, Abia also found M’Kayla had some personal issues that needed addressing. Skyline was the 11th school M’Kayla had attended. Abia said she became determined to find the underlying causes of M’Kayla’s problems.

“One day, she broke down and started crying,” Abia said. “I knew that day was a turning point in our relationship.”

Abia added some of the issues the pair discussed weren’t really school related, but would have hampered any teen. In any case, Abia said she eventually convinced M’Kayla that she — not her parents or others — would suffer the most if she didn’t step up and accomplish what she wanted to accomplish.

“Today, Joy’s friendship is one of my greatest treasures,” M’Kayla said.

Abia admitted sometimes there was a cultural gap between her and her mentee. For example, Abia said in Nigeria younger woman rarely have boyfriends. To learn more about U.S. teens, Abia said she took to watching TV shows such as “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”

Abia readily admitted one reason she believes so strongly in mentoring is because of the guidance she received as a young woman from an older classmate at the boarding school they both attended. Abia hopes to stay in contact with M’Kayla at least through college and eventually work in some capacity, not necessarily mentoring, with at-risk youth. With a background in information technology, Abia is attending Bellevue College.

Gierke said there are currently 75 mentors serving 240 students throughout the Issaquah School District. Some are older students helping younger students.

“It’s a great win-win,” she said. “Our kids are helping our kids.”

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