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They call him ‘Mr. Mentor’

on November 26, 2010

“I’ve mostly got A’s and B’s but only one D in AP Bio. I struggled with this subject…”

Paola Portillo, a senior and cheerleader at Richmond High School, starts to jabber as soon as she closes the door of Mr. Mentor’s office. Another 10th grader, Magnolia Lopez, also occupying his cramped office smelling somewhat of musky old papers and Febreeze, chimes in with chatter about how to start a “toy drive project” aimed at gathering toys to help the Oakland Children’s Hospital. Of course this is Mr. Mentor’s idea.  “He’s cool. If you need somebody to talk, he’s always there for you.”

Amongst Richmond High School students “Mr. Mentor” is more familiar than his real name, Sammie Lee Hill; though perhaps some students aren’t aware of his surprisingly diverse background as a police officer, lyricist and TV show extra.

Mr. Mentor believes that education is the key for young generations' success as role models.

Before working at Richmond High School, Hill spent 25 years as a California State prison guard and then as a police officer in the San Pablo Police Department. Throughout his law enforcement career, he particularly enjoyed working with youth between ages 8 to 17 through the “Police Activity League.” So after retiring, officer Hill began working as an educator at Richmond High School. “I’ve seen a lot of troubled kids during my police officer years. But if you give them some love and respect, you’ll get the same thing as return. It’s very simple.”

Living up to his nickname, Hill has been trying to point students in the right direction throughout his 11 years at Richmond High School. If students start to rack up absences, Hill has been known to pay a visit to their homes and “bring them back.” The mediation program that Hill sponsors gives students a chance to resolve conflicts, and according to Magnolia “the program really works, it stops making problems get bigger.”

As a co-founder of the 21st Century Mentors Foundation (CMF), a program that provides guidance, counseling and scholarships for highly motivated students, Hill seeks to inspire emerging young leaders. Last May, 40 Richmond High students from the program traveled to Universal Studio in Los Angeles, entirely funded by the CMF as a reward for their demonstrated initiative and dedication. For some students the trip offered a chance to broaden perspectives. “Our mediation students need to be rewarded, they never been to Universal Studios, they even never been to Southern California.”

Cluttering the walls of his small office are mementos from former students.

With his background as a lyricist—songwriter of  “Mentor” and “We can change the world”—he now routinely gives workshops on song writing and publishing for students interested in a music career. “There are a lot of types of mentors out there like truck drivers or a friend in jail,” he said, “but these are not good mentors.” Hill hopes to show students how to be positive role models.

“I want to see every one of these kids graduate from high school and go to college and become productive role models of our community.” when asked his dream, Mr. Mentor pondered for a moment and answered with a smile. He asked to stop the interview and hurried out of his office to get the delivery food he ordered an hour ago for two students who didn’t have time to get food because of their busy schedules. This is Mr. Mentor’s other job.

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