Jeniece Howe, 38, moved to San Francisco in the fall of 2018. After five years of teaching in underserved neighborhoods — math in Denver, and economics and government in Dallas — she was looking for a change. But as she shifted into doing administrative work for an architecture firm and, during the pandemic, managing the prepared foods department at a local Whole Foods, she wanted to continue helping the community she no longer professionally taught. It all started with a Google search.
“I made a list of all the different volunteer programs and made a point to make appointments with them or do info sessions,” Jeniece recalls. “Minds Matter Bay Area (MMBay) is the organization that I thought had the best mission. And the one that did all the things that I had wished that I’d had the time and resources to do when I was a teacher.”
This standout organization is a volunteer-run group that empowers underserved students with guidance, academic support, and test prep as they apply to and prepare for college. Two mentors are dedicated to each mentee throughout the multi-year process, and it is cost-free for their families.
“It’s so important for high school students, especially low-income high school students, to have supportive adults in their lives,” Jeniece explains. “Our mentees come from caring families. They have teachers and coaches at school, but, speaking from personal experience, families aren’t always able to offer advice on college and career. And teachers don’t always have time for extra support outside of the classroom.”
MMBay has been around since 2010, graduating their first class of mentees in 2013. At least 10 adults support each mentee as they navigate the college application process.
“[Today,] we’ve graduated over 200 students. And 100% of them have been admitted to four-year colleges. When you talk about outcomes like that and the fact that all of them are on track to graduate within four years, that is huge for our community,” says Niharika Ray, chief operations officer of MMBay.
For five years, Jeniece has been a pillar of the organization. She starts each week figuring out where she is needed most and goes well beyond her defined roles to improve student experience.
“Jeniece truly embodies what it means to have deep care and service for our students. That’s why she’s so good at what she does. No matter what she does, her lens is always how can we serve our students better, and in a nonprofit, especially where we serve students, that’s what you need,” adds Niharika.
Initially, Jeniece joined the team as a mentoring lead for the sophomore class, writing and delivering curriculum to mentee-mentor teams and working with program leaders to refine mentees’ three-year learning arc while strengthening lessons. For the last two years, she has led all of the mentee-facing programs–instruction, mentoring, summer programs, college admissions, and financial aid–as co-chief programming officer. She has also overseen the return to in-person sessions after the pandemic lockdowns.
There’s no direct contact with mentees defined in the role, so Jeniece attended weekly sessions in order to stay connected. During that time, she discovered that many of the students had never been on a college tour and took the initiative to organize a trip. She garnered leadership support, worked out the details with fellow volunteers and created a lesson plan for mentees to use on the tour. It went so well that volunteers planned another visit shortly after.
“One of the things I love about Jeniece is that she may have a role or a title, but she never lets that limit the scope of her imagination,” Niharika proclaims.
Now, five years into her service to the organization, Jeniece is an instructional coach, a role she saw a need for and created. She will use her teaching experience to serve as a resource and help improve the teaching skills of volunteers, many of whom have a background in finance, engineering and tech. Over the course of the year, she’ll provide training, observations and individualized feedback for each instructor.
“In the past, we put a lot of focus on the mentee experience in our program – rightfully so – but this year, we’re putting more investment into the volunteers so they, in turn, can help our mentees. We’ve found that volunteers who have more preparation and competence tend to be more engaged in our community,” she states.
Jeniece spends five to 15 hours a week at MMBay, depending on the role and the needs. Her favorite part of the work is watching students thrive.
“I get to see shy sophomores turn into successful and confident high school graduates,” she says. “Going to the graduation ceremony is probably the most rewarding thing. It’s also nice to see people as they continue their journey. There’s a lot of growing up that happens once they go off to college,” she adds of welcoming back former mentees to share their experience with current students.
College is an experience Jeniece wants to make available to anyone who is interested.
“Go outside your comfort zone and apply for the programs and financial aid, because there’s a lot of goodwill in the world. And you’re important,” she advises students. “You should be able to have all these neat experiences.”
But that’s not the only positive benefit. As a transplant to the city, Jeniece has built a community and found purpose outside of work in a place where, at one time, she knew very few people.
“Volunteers get as much out of the experience as our mentees do. For example, one of our mentors told me he had never had a little brother, but after volunteering with Minds Matter Bay Area he feels like his mentees became his family,” she mentions. “Another volunteer invited his mentees to his wedding.”
Looking ahead, Jeniece is excited for the yearly School Night fundraiser coming up in October. It’s a night to celebrate mentees and volunteers while hearing from various speakers including a former-mentee-turned-volunteer.
Through outreach, reputation and word-of-mouth, the organization continues to grow. As MMBay expands to a second site this year, Jeniece looks forward to diving into her new role and learning more about recruiting and fundraising while expanding her understanding of the organization as a whole.
“Volunteering is really a way for everyone to make a positive impact on [their] community. So often, we hear about negative things that are happening in the world, and for me, volunteering is a way to push back on some of that negativity through my actions.”
As she looks for her next career move, Jenice focuses on helping others. And while the weather is nice, she’s enjoying the outdoors by walking and biking, sometimes leaning into that pushback vibe with her motorcycle.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Jeniece? Find local volunteer opportunities.