SONOMA COUNTY (KPIX 5) — Some students are getting better grades. Others are the first in their family to go to college. One in ten students in Sonoma Valley said their future is brighter, because they have someone encouraging them along the way: this week’s Jefferson Award winner.

More than 450 Sonoma Valley students know the support and encouragement of an adult volunteer, the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance and its Stand By Me mentor program. On a warm summer afternoon in Sonoma, several pairs took a field trip to bond 25 feet above the ground – at a trapeze school.

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Twelve-year-old Ricky couldn’t believe he flew on a trapeze.

“I saw people do it, then I think I want to do it, and I did it!” he reported.

Ricky’s mentor, Gary Umholtz, shared the joy.

“He did great!” Umholtz said.

“Anything that we can do to help them believe in themselves, that’s what we are all about,” explained the Alliance founder Kathy Witkowicki.

The daring adventure reinforces one of Witkowicki’s core values. Anything is possible, in the air, and in your life. She personally mentors 15-year-old Jackie. Jackie calls Kathy a second mother who challenges her to grow as a writer and leader.

“She gets me into these things that push me and motivate me,” Jackie said.

As a nurse and single of mother of four, Witkowicki started Stand By Me in 1996. She secured a grant and began a project to tutor struggling readers. It’s grown into a mentoring program at eight schools. Mentors and their students meet at least one hour a week for study and fun.

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“They build teamwork and they build their confidence,” Witkowicki said simply.

But relationships take time. So Witkowicki recruits volunteers willing to mentor for life. The average Stand By Me mentorship lasts eight years.

Paula Burkhart says the best part is seeing the change in her 15-year-old mentee: “Watching Brenda grow from a shy 9-year-old to a confident, self-directed young woman.”

Brenda calls Burkhart her role model.

“Knowing that she’s proud of me and that she knows I can make it to college makes me more confident that I can make it to college,” said Brenda.

Witkowicki says more than 90 percent of Stand By Me seniors graduated from high school last year. She marvels at the power of mentorship.

“It grew to something beyond my wildest dreams,” she said.

So for empowering more than 1,500 students with a supportive mentor, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Kathy Witkowicki.

Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance is looking for dedicated mentors. It has 140 kids on a waiting list because there aren’t enough volunteers. To get involved, visit

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