Chris Reese aspires to help kids in the Menlo Park area consider college.
A 2010 SJSU graduate and former Spartan football player, Reese has launched a mentorship foundation to guide and support K-8 students at Menlo Park’s Belle Haven Elementary School.
Reese’s Zozo Foundation honors his late uncle, Alonzo Reese, and the community around East Palo Alto.
“That’s how I’m going to make sure his spirit stays with us,” Reese said.
The foundation’s volunteer mentors help motivate and bring a support system to Belle Haven Elementary School in Menlo Park, according to Reese.
In addition, Reese, who is a house father at Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, said the mentors provide incentive for fraternity and sorority members and other students seeking community service hours.
“Pretty much we want these kids to look up to these college students … as role models,” he said.
Andy, a Belle Haven seventh-grader who is one of the students the foundation is mentoring, admitted that he went through a difficult time with his family’s divorce until he finally shared it.
“I can finally tell somebody that will actually listen,” he said. “I feel better (letting it out).”
Irshad Fardan, who is an SJSU senior psychology major and Andy’s mentor, is also an Alpha Tau Omega brother who wants to share his experiences as object lessons “for the kids who have been through a divorce period.”
“I’ve been through that kind of life as a child (and) I can help them out in that situation,” he said. For Andy, Fardan provides a support system he didn’t have before.
“If you get bullied, you get to tell them your problem (and) they could help you solve it,” Andy said. “It’s good for the kids so they could know what’s coming ahead of them (in life).”
Alexandrea Cervantez, a senior kinesiology major at Cal State East Bay, is another mentor who wants to use her own childhood experiences to help kids.
“I had a pretty good upbringing, but I know I am where I am because of the support I had,” she said. “And not a lot of people have that support system at home.”
Reese’s uncle’s death more than a year ago prompted him to take up the challenge of starting the Zozo Foundation.
According to Reese, his uncle talked about starting a foundation to give back to the community.
Alonzo Reese had set an example as co-founder and political-activist chair of the Lesbians and Gays of African Descent for Democratic Action.
“He was (also) the president of Project Inform, which worked toward spreading advocacy for people with AIDS,” Chris Reese said.“We knew we wanted to help the youth in the East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park area but didn’t know how we were going to do so specifically.”
Reese decided to make his uncle's idea a reality and explained that he spent time surveying the area for youth organizations that already existed and determined that their focus was high school groups.
“We figured that by reaching kids earlier, we might have a higher chance of impacting their lives,” he said.
Having worked with SJSU’s Fuerza Escolar in mentoring youth, Reese said he decided to follow a similar model for his foundation.
After speaking with other organizations, Reese said he was referred to Paitra Sharp, director of volunteer services for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula.
“Less than 10 percent of our kids have a parent who went to college, and so just being able to have conversations about how you get there is really difficult,” Sharp said. “Some of (the parents) are really pushing their kids to go to college…but they don’t really know the steps or tools that they need.”
According to Sharp, she was also in the process of developing a mentorship program and agreed to link with Reese’s foundation.
Belle Haven Elementary School hosts the Boys & Girls Club Center for New Generations , an after-school program that is a branch without the usual pool tables or basketball courts of other Boys & Girls Clubs, according to school site director, Elizabeth Calderon-Garcia, a 2010 SJSU graduate.
Calderon-Garcia is now able to use the foundation's half-dozen mentors to help work with the kids in the after-school program.
“We’re really trying to match our middle school in particular with mentors to really guide them…to graduate from high school with a plan,” Calderon-Garcia said, a plan Reese said should include moving onto and through college.
Reese said prospective mentors can go to zozofoundation.org for more information.
According to Reese, any donations received will be used strictly used toward food, trips and supplies for the kids they serve.
Although the mentors won’t be helping the students academically with their schoolwork, they will be a friend and a person the kids can talk to about struggles they may be facing.
Reese said he is committed to making the foundation named after his uncle a success.
“I know my uncle is in heaven and looking down at us — and proud,” Reese said.