Written by Erin Coller

In the 1980s a growing problem among a large population of young girls in San Diego became apparent, with many Latinas dropping out of school and not graduating high school or even junior high, often due to unplanned pregnancies. The founders of the local chapter of nonprofit MANA (MANA de San Diego) envisioned a solution to this issue and started the advocacy organization to deal with issues affecting Latinas at the time, some of which continue to be prevalent issues they are working to tackle today.

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For information on upcoming mentor information sessions or to become a member of MANA, visit manasd.org.

Created in 1987, MANA de San Diego’s Hermanitas® (Spanish for “Little Sisters”) mentorship program challenges Latina middle and high school students to reach beyond a high school diploma to pursue higher education, enter the professional workforce and become leaders empowered to affect positive change.

Over 800 students have been through the Hermanitas program, and up to 60 Hermanitas-mentor pairs are created every year, making it the largest mentorship program of its type in the U.S. Since 2006, Hermanitas have boasted 100 percent high school graduation rates and higher education pursuits.

Through Hermanitas, MANA de San Diego also seeks to remove significant barriers encountered by Latina adolescents, such as teen pregnancy, incomplete high school education, substance abuse, mental health issues, high-risk sexual behavior, and economic disadvantages.

MANA de San Diego supports its Hermanitas on their life-changing journey, by providing them with a one-to-one mentor who has walked down similar paths, has a similar life story or faced similar challenges and is now successful, responsible and empowered. Mentors are established professionals or university students from San Diego County representing diverse areas of interest including education, healthcare, finance, engineering, communications and law.

Image courtesy MANA de San Diego
Image courtesy MANA de San Diego

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is a major partner with MANA de San Diego on the Hermanitas program through the Inspiring Future Leaders giving initiative among other areas, providing support for Latina girls to have an opportunity to explore careers in the STEM fields. Many mentors, like Norma Jasso, Committee Member of the Year, are SDG&E employees, including one who is a top recruiter for participants and volunteers. Since SDG&E began supporting MANA de San Diego with a focus on STEM, there has been a 20 percent increase in Hermanitas students pursuing STEM majors in college.

Current MANA de San Diego Board President Venus Molina is one of many success stories to arise from the Hermanitas program. Molina was part of the San Diego chapter’s first group Hermanitas, which began at Pacific Beach Middle School in 1986-87 with 12-15 high-risk young Latinas who were being bused into the school from areas south of Interstate 8. The program was pitched to the students as a fun mentorship program with trips to destinations like the San Diego Zoo.

According to Molina, as a 12-year-old one of the first things she noticed about the mentors was that they looked and sounded like her, such as Mary Salas, a past Hermanitas mentor who went on to become a California Assemblymember and the current mayor of Chula Vista.

Image courtesy MANA de San Diego
Image courtesy MANA de San Diego

Molina says she had a very strict mentor who was an accountant at the city of San Diego, and was exactly what she needed. Molina’s mother cleaned houses for a living and was very busy, working long hours. Her mentor, Josephine, was able to step in and attend every school open house and communicate with all her teachers, ensuring Molina did her homework every day. They still maintain a strong relationship today. Molina went on to attend the University of San Diego, supported by a scholarship through MANA, and she was very involved in non-profits and politics after developing an interest in advocacy through MANA.

Goals at MANA have become bigger over the years. A current key focus at MANA is cyclical change, supporting women at every stage of life and training women now to be at the decision-making table in the future professionally and engaged civically.

“When you invest in a woman, especially young Latinas, you really invest in a family,” said Molina. “When we invest in these young women, we change the dynamics and direction that family will take from this point forward.”

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