St. Anthony: DIVAs forge bright futures with mentors' help

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Neda Kellogg, left, executive director of Project DIVA; DIVA consultant and mentor Keeya Allen; Pamela Lehan, chief operating officer of the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis, and DIVA graduate Jasmine Clark.

Photo: Neal ST. Anthony • Star Tribune,

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Five years ago, when I first met her, Jasmine Clark was a shy-but-poised 16-year-old high school student in north Minneapolis, living with an older sister and friends.

Clark had little besides a good attitude, a vision of a better future and the beginnings of a plan. And she had mentors who cared. Now 21, Clark has earned a two-year college degree and several medical-related certificates. She works with the developmentally disabled.

And she credits Project DIVA with helping her on her journey. The small nonprofit connects female mentors with disadvantaged girls.

“I kind of grew up without my parents,” said Clark. “I sometimes stayed with Ms. Neda.”

That would be Neda Kellogg, a staff member of the former charter school, who started Project DIVA several years ago as a part-time initiative to help struggling girls.

Clark was part of the first group of what has grown to be about three dozen teenage girls each year who meet weekly during the school year to discuss school issues, learn about personal finance, postsecondary education and careers, prepare for a spring talent show, and spend time with DIVA volunteer mentors.

I first met Clark and Kellogg at a conference sponsored by the Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota in 2009 at the Mall of America. I’m a mentoring fan. Every successful person needs mentors. Nobody makes it alone. And none of the Project DIVA girls has a well-connected parent who can tap a business associate for a nice summer job. Most come from hardscrabble backgrounds. But they are willing to learn and listen and make to high school graduation as a DIVA.

“Project DIVA helps build these girls a network,” Patrice Cox, a business mentor, told me several years ago. “And we require them to listen, learn and ‘pay it forward’ through volunteering.”

The Project DIVA journey has a nice new twist to it that shows that even the mentoring agency can use a mentor. Kellogg was introduced last year to Pamela Lehan, general manager of the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis. Since 1907, the Loring Park-based club and community service organization has supported female-oriented health and education causes with millions in donations and service.

“We were started by six women who said they could do more together than alone,” Lehan said. “We’re still doing that. Including hosting Project DIVA.”

Kellogg, also a recent graduate of the University of St. Thomas’ nonprofit management program, said she’s gained valuable insights from Woman’s Club members.

“We’ve never really had a home,” Kellogg said. “It’s really cool to have the Woman’s Club as a partner. Their members mentor some of the girls. And the older members … mentor me. And our girls get to spend time with women they could never expect to meet.”

Most of the Woman’s Club members are white and middle class. The Project DIVA girls mostly are lower-income and black. Bridges are built and relationships forged. Project DIVA Saturday meetings during the school year were once always at a North Side park or library. Now they meet once in awhile at the elegant Woman’s Club. They usually meet on Saturdays at North Commons Park.

Meanwhile, the Pohlad Foundation is helping Project Diva open a retail shop on Lowry Avenue N. in August.

The shop, named “Raiding a DIVA’s Closet,” sells used-but-fashionable clothing. It also will provide work experience to participants and revenue to the organization.

The Project DIVA board expects to double the annual budget from $63,000 to $130,000 next year. Most money goes for school supplies, winter clothing, emergency expenditures and field trips. Kellogg, who has quit her day job, and Keeya Allen, Project DIVA’s part-time coordinator and also a volunteer mentor, are in line for salaries in 2015 if the fundraising continues to improve.

Project DIVA (www.projectdivas.com) and other mentoring organizations still are short of caring adults willing to spend time with kids in need. The Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota is an umbrella organization (www.mpmn.org) for dozens of quality organizations, from Big Brothers & Big Sisters to Bolder Options, that may be right for you.

There’s a reason why smart businesspeople also support mentoring, in addition to doing the right thing. We need every kid educated and helping to build a better economy and society.

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