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Waltham High School Alum and Local Community Leader Helps to Make a Difference for Graduating Senior

From left to right: Witerland Simon, 17, of Waltham, and her mentor, Lillian Santangelo, 55, of Waltham.
From left to right: Witerland Simon, 17, of Waltham, and her mentor, Lillian Santangelo, 55, of Waltham.

A 1976 Waltham High School graduate has returned to the scene to help a current student find success.

A former candidate for city council turned corporate legal assistant, Lillian Santangelo, 55, of Waltham, wants to bridge the achievement gap that exists between ethnicities. She has spent the last two years building a relationship with Witerland Simon, 17, a Haitian native and Waltham High School student, to help boost her confidence, improve her English, raise her grades and apply to college. On May 8, Santangelo will be honored for the direct impact she has made in Simon’s life by the John Andrew Mazie Memorial Foundation (JAMMF) during the Mazie Mentoring Program’s mentor recognition dinner. Simon, who aspires to become a psychologist, will graduate in June.

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.

In March 2012, Santangelo was matched with Simon and was challenged to help build her mentee’s confidence. Not knowing what to expect from their mentee-mentor relationship, the duo began meeting up to 20 hours a month to work on homework, catch the latest movie, volunteer for various cooking and animal related community service projects in and around town, and research and prepare to apply to colleges.  In the process, they have built a solid friendship that both Santangelo and Simon hope to continue beyond Simon’s high school graduation.

Simon came to the United States in 2010 after an earthquake devastated her country. She moved with her older sisters into her grandfather’s house. As a 13 year old who virtually spoke no English, it was hard to make friends and adjust to the American way of life. An introvert by nature, she earned mediocre grades and had a tendency to keep to herself. 

“When I first met Wit, she was very soft spoken,” says Santangelo. “She lacked a certain belief in her ability to succeed. She was a hard worker and always polite. She struggled with a language barrier and needed someone to help break her out of her shell.” 

After working with Santangelo, Simon is now confident and speaks, reads, and writes three languages: French, Creole and English. She is just now beginning to study Spanish in school. Simon raised her math grade from a D to an A and has made the honor roll each quarter this year. She works two jobs to help support her family and is heavily involved with her local church. She plans to attend Bunker Hill Community College in the fall to further improve her language skills before transferring to Brigham Young University where she will pursue a degree in psychology.

“When I went to Waltham High School, there was a much less diverse population of students,” says Santangelo. “Students didn’t face many of the problems they encounter today, such as language barriers and racial stereotyping.  Waltham has become a true melting pot with varying cultures and perspectives. Wit has opened my eyes to what it’s like to be an American teenager today and has made me more aware about my role in society and how I can help.”

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.

Currently, the Mazie Mentoring Program is selling raffle tickets to support the Mazie scholarships awarded to mentee graduates. To enter to win a number of prizes, ranging in value from $100 to $420, including but not limited to Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics and New England Patriots tickets, an iPad mini and gift cards to local restaurants and stores, click here. Winners will be drawn on June 30. For more information about the Mazie Mentoring Program, to become a mentor, or to support the John Andrew Mazie Memorial Foundation, visit www.mazie.org. Applications for volunteer mentors are always gratefully accepted.

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