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The stories are heart-rending. There’s the girl who’s not allowed to be alone with her father because he tried to burn off her hands when she was younger. The teenager whose father works so hard as a truck driver that he barely sees her. And the 16-year-old whose two sisters were victims of sexual abuse; she says she’s lucky to have escaped it.
These are some of the girls who applied this year for The Hollywood Reporter‘s Women in Entertainment Mentorship Program, established two years ago with the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters to give high school juniors in some of the toughest schools in Los Angeles a chance to get guidance from the top. The program pairs 12 to 15 girls with high-level agents, publicists, lawyers and executives, and every girl spends at least one afternoon per fortnight in her mentor’s office during the course of a year. By the end of 2013, more than 40 girls from LAUSD’s Belmont, Crenshaw and Roosevelt high schools, along with the Santee Education Complex, will have gone through the program, which continues this year thanks to funding from Gersh, Guggenheim Partners, Lifetime Television and BCBG Max Azria Group.
To earn a spot, girls must have a 3.0 GPA, write an essay explaining how the program would help them and be interviewed by a BBBS executive and a THR editor — quite a challenge for teens who rarely have interacted with adults outside their environment.
“They all come from tough backgrounds,” says Terry Carreto, a college and career counselor at Theodore Roosevelt High in East Los Angeles, one of the participating schools. “Many come from single-parent families where their mothers are working almost 24/7. They get home, the parents aren’t there. And they still have to maintain their grades.”
The Mentorship Program launched in early 2010 as a bold experiment founded on the hope that the girls’ grades and lives would soar if they were given a chance. But they were unfamiliar with the professional world, especially at the exalted level of mentors such as Anne Sweeney, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks; Warner Bros. marketing president Sue Kroll; and Universal Pictures co-chairman Donna Langley — and frequently the mentors weren’t entirely sure how to handle inexperienced adolescents. “Trust-building had to occur,” says Tiffany Siart, head of BBBS of Greater L.A.
About three months in, fear lifted and bonds formed. Many mentors worked closely with their mentees through high school, and their relationships have continued as girls from our pilot year have entered college. Of the original 12, four were accepted to UC Berkeley; others have gone on to Occidental College, UC Irvine and Loyola Marymount — remarkable for disadvantaged teens.
One mentor, former Universal production president Debbie Liebling, kept working with her mentee even after losing her job; next summer, the mentee will intern at Liebling’s new workplace, Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Films. Another, attorney Melanie Cook, helped her mentee get medical aid after she was diagnosed with a multiple sclerosis-like condition that could have prevented her from attending Berkeley.
WME agent Nancy Josephson has proved a model: Her mentee, Maira Solis, came to her office twice a week — far more than the obligatory once a fortnight. Josephson has created her own program, pairing more than 20 WME agents with children at Foster Elementary in Compton, meeting twice a month. “We’ve copied THR,” she says. “But our goal is to stay with them all the way through high school.”
The most touching part of the experience for Josephson was when she took Solis to her own children’s school in Brentwood, where counselors helped with her college applications. “That was very emotional,” says Josephson. “She said, ‘I have a new dream: I want to send my children to a school like this.’ ”
THE CLASS OF 2012 MENTORS
Co-head of talent, ICM
CEO, ID PR
COO, ID PR
Head of motion picture literary department, ICM
Executive vp, A+E Networks
President of worldwide marketing, Summit Entertainment
Partner and motion picture agent, UTA
President of international distribution, Warner Bros. Pictures
Head of motion picture business and legal affairs, DreamWorks Animation
Senior vp original movies, Lifetime TV
Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Director, Kung Fu Panda 2
Partner and head of talent department, UTA
Publisher and senior vp, The Hollywood Reporter
Chief operating officer, Lionsgate TV
Chairman, 20th Century Fox Television
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