BRIGHTER FUTURES

Walmart founder Sam Walton believed in the power of people working as a team in service of the good of all.

Since 2009, the company’s associates have carried that belief on through Mi Futuro, a youth mentoring program with a mission to help educate and inspire potentially at-risk eighth-grade students.

Mi Futuro, which is Spanish for “my future,” works with kids from diverse backgrounds, teaching them how hard work and education can provide for a better future.

This past school year was the first time for Walmart Distribution Center in Seymour to be involved in the program. A dozen of the center’s managers volunteered to mentor 38 Seymour Middle School eighth-graders, meeting monthly since October.

“We were looking for opportunities to plug into the community more. We’re always looking for ways we can support the community,” said Erin Koons, operations manager for safety and asset protection at the center in Seymour and an ambassador of Mi Futuro.

“We thought this would be a good way to get plugged into the schools and help develop the workforce for the future and just share Walmart’s culture with the students and then also give back,” she said.

Schools don’t pay anything to be involved in the program. Walmart has a Volunteerism Always Pays program, where employees volunteer in the community and turn in their time and the company gives money to the organization.

In this case, the money goes to Seymour Middle School.

Cindy Hillenburg, a guidance counselor at Seymour Middle School, said Walmart had contacted the school to see if it was interested in participating. School officials thought it would complement a mentoring program already in place.

“Big Brothers Big Sisters has an active mentoring program in our school. Our students have benefited from that initiative for many years,” Hillenburg said. “We looked at this opportunity as a way of involving even more students. We didn’t even consider that there was no cost to the school, but that makes it even nicer.”

Teachers nominated students they felt would bring something positive to the experience, Hillenburg said.

Each monthly session at the middle school featured a guest speaker, which were different members of management from the distribution center sharing their story of how they got to where they are.

The mentors also worked with three to five students during those sessions, letting them know what they need to do during high school to prepare for whatever they want to do beyond high school.

Toward the end of the program, each student wrote a promise letter, sharing their plans for the future.

“Some of them had never really talked about outside of school and really thought about what it takes,” Koons said. “They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get a job that pays this much money,’ and we were like, ‘OK, so what is it going to take for you to get a job that pays that much money?’ It just kind of opened their eyes a little bit so they can really start thinking about their future.”

Eighth-grader Dakota Lewis said she was glad to be picked for the program and decided to do it because she thought it would help her make choices for her future.

“(Her mentor) knew a lot of information about careers,” Dakota said. “She helped me figure out what I want to do in the field of psychology. It helped me to narrow down what I wanted. I had previously thought about many choices.”

Eighth-grader Jacob Clark said it helped to talk about the future and what it will take to accomplish his goals.

“I liked learning about the different scholarships, colleges and universities,” he said. “I learned more about what opportunities are out there for me. We learned about how much money we could make, and we learned about what kinds of jobs are out there.”

Hillenburg said the students always were engaged in the monthly meetings and excited to meet with their mentors.

“Career exploration is an important piece of the curriculum for our students. This fit right in with that goal,” she said.

“The mentors from Walmart brought practical knowledge for the kids and were very straightforward about what is expected in the workplace,” she said. “It’s always good to get a consistent message from many different sources. It confirmed what our teachers and counselors tell them about what is expected of them.”

Koons said the distribution center managers benefited from the program, too.

“Our mentors are looking to grow personally, as well, and share the experiences they’ve had,” she said. “I know that they were looking just to share and help develop as well as gain from the students an understanding of where they are. We learned a lot about what’s on the minds of eighth-graders to help us prepare for the workforce that’s coming.”

Koons said the distribution center plans to offer the program again next school year. That may include reaching out to the community and having guest speakers from other professions, too.

“Hopefully, we’ve just begun,” she said. “We just wanted to see how it went the first year. We’ve got one year under our belts, so hopefully next year, we can expand on it.”

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.