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Mentors Challenge Others to Join

Julia Gomez can't remember who suggested she enroll her first-grader in a mentoring program 14 years ago. But she will never forget Donna Custer, the woman entered their lives.

"We don't see her as a mentor, we see her as a family member," Gomez said. "I can't express myself, I can't find the words to describe what she's been in our lives."

The close-knit triad of Custer, Julia Gomez and Tony Gomez were the main exhibit at Tuesday night's Mentor Challenge, an open house for local mentoring programs held at the Black Bear Saloon in SoNo.

Booths in the bar area showcased programs such as Serving All Vessels Equally, or S.A.V.E., which provides mentors for children who have or have had a parent in prison; Project Friendship, which matches adults with children who have similar interests; and a Junior Project Friendship, in which teenagers mentor children ages 6 to 12.

Soraya Bilbao, program manager for the Mentoring Institute of Coastal Fairfield County , arranged the open house. A survey done this summer indicated that more than 450 Fairfield County children are waiting for mentors, she said.

"We're hoping to lower that number by doing events like this, where people can come in ... and hear from current mentors about mentoring opportunities and make the decision to become a mentor," she said.

To drive home the point, Custer, her mentee and his mother shared their story. Custer said that meeting young Tony was the scariest day of her life. "I certainly thought it was going to be an exciting adventure as well, but I could never imagine the impact that it has had," she said.

Now 19 and a culinary student at Norwalk Community College , Tony Gomez couldn't describe how grateful he is. "It is just amazing," he said. "She was like a second mother to me, and my family actually. She helped us when we needed it; she helped me when I needed it. Without her, I don't think I would be in the position I am in now, have a good job, be in college."

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