THR's Big Brothers Big Sisters Program: Hollywood Mentors, $200K Scholarship Fund Unveiled
Graduates of the program have already gone on to UC Berkeley, UCLA and dozens of other elite colleges; this year's class includes a teen with a year-old baby.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It's the end of a long morning on Nov. 16 at City Honors Preparatory charter school in Inglewood, Calif., and for the past four hours, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles' Sylvia Martinez and I have been interviewing girls in 15- to 30-minute increments. Nearly all are juniors, and all are finalists for the fourth year of the Women in Entertainment Mentorship Program, a collaboration between THR and BBBSLA -- pairing highflying inner-city girls with top-level female executives, each mentor and mentee committing to spend an afternoon together every two weeks for a year. Past mentors have included such major industry figures as Anne Sweeney, Abbe Raven and Dana Walden -- who was honored at this year's BBBS gala for her work -- and word has spread through schools like City Honors of this rare opportunity.
Today's girls have been whittled from dozens of applicants; each must have at least a 3.0 GPA and write a lengthy essay about why she should be chosen for the 12 slots we have in L.A. (along with five in New York). They live in neighborhoods riddled with gangs, study in overflowing classrooms and often deal with economic hardship -- especially those whose families are in the U.S. illegally. Hollywood is about as far removed from them as Mars.
One girl worries about getting her green card; another helps care for a mentally challenged sibling; a third says she just got a glimpse of her father, with whom she has had no contact in years, at the mall -- recognizing him from a photo she has kept -- but was shattered when he didn't acknowledge her.
Often these teenagers are having their first semiprofessional encounter in this room, and some break down in tears during the process. But now we have pretty much locked in the final 12 and are starting to discuss which girl would work best with which mentor -- from a stellar group that includes such high-powered women as Columbia Pictures' Hannah Minghella, NBC Entertainment's Jennifer Salke and Paramount's Megan Colligan -- when there's a knock at the door, and a very timid and wan Latina girl pokes her head in.
She goes to school in Compton and has applied for the program, but because there have been so few candidates from her school, we've decided not to conduct interviews there. Despite the difficulties in reaching us, she has found her way across town, waiting all morning outside the classroom we're using.
This teen girl already has a year-old baby. All of our instincts say this can't work: With school plus a baby, and practically no cash for either, how can this young woman add the challenge of the Mentorship Program? But she has shown the drive to come here, forcing her mother and aunt to bring her -- and her baby. We speak with her, then with her family, and finally, after contacting a mentor who seems she might be open to the unique challenge, Sylvia and I decide to take the plunge. She is now to be the 12th member of the Women in Entertainment mentorship class of 2013.
The benefits are clear: Four girls in our pilot group now attend UC Berkeley; others are aiming for Stanford and Amherst. Nearly all have been supported by women taking great time and care amid unbearably pressured days.
The new mentees will be helped even more thanks to a scholarship fund created by Lifetime TV and the Entertainment Industry Foundation, which will be unveiled Dec. 5 at THR's annual Women in Entertainment breakfast. The EIF/Lifetime Scholarships will provide a remarkable $200,000 a year, divided among girls who successfully complete the yearlong mentorship and aiding them substantially for college.
Will this slight young girl with her baby playing nearby make it that far? It's impossible to tell. But she has done everything in her power, and surely she deserves a chance.
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