By Tom Bannister
Yhara Casimir, 18, of Waltham, immigrated to the United States four years ago after her native country, Haiti, was greatly affected by an earthquake. She came with her younger sister, leaving behind their parents, and moved in with family friends whom the girls refer to as their aunt, uncle and cousins. Casimir entered John F. Kennedy Memorial Middle School as an eighth-grader and did not know how to speak a word of English. She was bright, but she was shy and had not been exposed to many traditions, foods and experiences that were considered a way of life for her American peers.
Now, the high school senior speaks fluent English and is preparing to graduate and go to college in the northeast. Casimir aspires to become a pediatrician, following in her father’s footsteps in the medical field. She is a leader of conversation and is heavily involved with her school’s show choir and local church. Casimir’s success can be greatly attributed to her relationship with her mentor, Jennifer Hammel, 32, of Somerville, and the John Andrew Mazie Memorial Foundation (JAMMF).
JAMMF is a nonprofit organization that operates the Mazie Mentoring Program and is dedicated to transforming at-risk or disadvantaged youth into adults of promise. Founded in 1998, the unique goal-oriented scholarship award-giving program pairs high school sophomores who are at-risk of not fulfilling their potential with adult volunteer mentors who can help them thrive.
Hammel grew up just outside of Washington, D.C. Inspired by friends who were not as lucky as she was, she became a volunteer mentor for the program and was matched in the spring of 2012 with Casimir.
“When I first met Yhara, she was quiet and a bit hesitant to try new things,” Hammel said. “She had never tasted Indian or Chinese food or dressed up to celebrate Halloween. She had never experienced a sleepover with friends, and pet dogs scared her. I knew it was my mission to expand Yhara’s world, help provide her with the confidence that she lacked and show her she can handle any situation.”
For the last two years, the mentee-mentor duo has tried to meet once a week to catch up and try new experiences and cuisines. From riding the T in Boston for the first time to learning how to play Monopoly at Hammel’s house, there is no adventure too big or too small for Hammel and Casimir as long as they are together. They work on homework at the library and often go out to eat and see a movie. One of Hammel’s proudest moments: getting Casimir to attend a dog show.
“Jennifer is like the older sister I never had,” Casimir said. “From sitting down to help me with my homework to going out to work on community service projects together, she has really helped me to grow as a person. I hope we can continue our relationship after I graduate.”
In the last 16 years, the Mazie Mentoring Program has helped more than 500 young people go on to lead more fulfilled and successful lives while inspiring the adult volunteer mentors who work with them. Each year, 60 Framingham and Waltham High School students are accepted into the program. More than 90 percent of those students graduate from high school and more than 70 percent go on to college or other post-secondary training programs.
“To be a mentor to a child is both a rewarding and educational experience,” Hammel said. “I feel joy knowing I have played a role in the person Yhara will become. Yhara, in turn, has taught me a lesson in patience and what it truly means to put myself in someone else’s shoes. She has opened my eyes to the Haitian culture and what it is to be a teenager today.”