Tom Pennella has worked 35 years in social services. In 1999, Tom along with former Lt. Governor Brad Owen and Bob Craves, a COSTCO Wholesale founder, formed the MENTOR Washington program. Tom works through the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).
MENTOR Washington is a public-private partnership between DCYF and COSTCO. “We receive state funding and funding from COSTCO. I’m a loaned executive and COSTCO has a loaned executive as well,” Tom explains. “I’m the Mentoring Administrator. I tell people and they say you’re in a public-private partnership with COSTCO Wholesale? That’s fantastic.”
“What we do is we work with the 100 plus mentoring programs statewide like Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and faith-based organizations.” The loaned executives create mentoring programs, and pair nonprofits with local state offices. “If there are barriers, I can break those. And when the state has funding, I can connect the nonprofits with funding.”
The partnership has also funded research on the effectiveness of mentoring. They are working with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to promote school attendance. Research shows the more a kid shows up to school, the more likely they are to graduate.
“I’m working on a project at Greenhill School in Chehalis that matches youth up with folks who have been formerly incarcerated in our juvenile justice system,” shares Tom. “It’s called Credible Messengers. It really resonates with these kids to have someone who looks like you and has a similar background say, this is how I did it.” Mentors share how they managed incarceration, and how they were able to get past common hurdles once they were released. “Everything from going to a job interview and saying I have a felony now. What does that look like?”
Tom is also involved in a new youth employment Workforce Mentoring program that pairs youth aged 16-19 with businesses providing job skill training and career guidance that leads to living wage jobs. This is a pilot program that is being tested in the Seattle area where schools are partnering with auto dealers. They hope to expand to other areas and industries.
Though it’s not quite time yet, Tom is contemplating retirement. “As I write my last chapter, this is something I can be proud of. I’ll always do something. Workforce Mentoring is something I really want to see going because I think it could really be a game changer for young folks.” He adds, “We work with mentorship programs statewide, so we have a finger on the pulse of what’s happening. We work with tribes as well. Mentoring for tribes is nothing new. It’s a natural fit.”
Not only does Tom design mentoring programs, he is a mentor himself through a program that connects kids who have a deployed military parent with a caring adult. Tom has mentored the same child for four years. They meet once a week at school for an hour. “I grew up military,” shares Tom, so he knows what it’s like to have a parent away for long periods of time and to move around a lot. “[The mentor] doesn’t replace the parent, but they give kids a little extra support,” says Tom. “That is a cool program through Big Brothers Big Sisters.”
“I’m very passionate about the work that I do. At the end of the day I know that it is making an impact because it’s providing young folks and families with tools. I’m not telling them what to do, but I’m giving them tools and opportunities they can take advantage of at their own pace.”
Listening, sharing experiences, or just being a consistent presence for a young person can have a big impact. “How did we learn, by mistakes, by our parents? Some of the kids I work with don’t have that. You are what you know.”
Outside of work and his volunteer mentoring, Tom enjoys time with his wife and two kids. He has a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and goes on rides with friends. “I like to do family stuff. I like to do road trips on my bike or in the car,” says Tom. “Last year, we got to go to a couple national parks. I just find those parks are fascinating. We went to the Grand Canyon earlier this year. We looked at the slot caves. It’s just so pretty.”
Competitive powerlifting is a recent interest. “I currently have a World Record in my age and weight,” Tom shares. “Sometimes they joke I’m the only one in the competition at my age and weight, but that’s okay. It’s good. You’ve got to show up.”
Do the work and show up. It’s a simple recipe that can garner all sorts of positive results, even a World Record. That is a message conveyed implicitly through mentoring too. Showing up for youth can be very rewarding.
This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the work and contributions of public employees. It’s produced with support from WSECU.