Mariano Rivera Foundation finds early success in Gainesville

Mariano Rivera became a household name for his cutter and unmatched baseball prowess. You don’t have to be a New York Yankees fan to appreciate his accomplishments: 652 saves, 13 All-Star game selections and five World Series championships over a 19-year career.

He’s the only player in baseball history to receive a unanimous induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2019.

Rivera’s playing days ended in 2013, but his desire to help others—especially young people—has continued. That desire now has a physical manifestation in Gainesville at the Ignite Life Center, a local church where the pilot program for the Mariano Rivera Mentorship Program launched in June.

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“We believe in the youth; we believe in giving back to the community, and we believe in creating opportunities for those in need to be successful,” Rivera told WCJB at the opening.

The program seeks to mentor high school boys who come from underprivileged backgrounds. Through the program, the students will gain a mentor and learn everything from etiquette to changing tires.

“For us, success looks like building relationships with the students,” program coordinator Esther Omeben said in a phone interview.

Nearly three months in, she says the program is already functioning properly as the mentors and mentees interact. The students meet Monday, Wednesday and Friday to learn vocational skills such as graphic design or to simply spend time together at the pool.

The program will also set up tutoring to help students with class work.

The mentorship program came out of Rivera’s relationship with Mark and Lisa Vega, pastors of Ignite Life Center. Mark, a former Yankees’ team chaplain, met Rivera in 1990—shortly after the pitcher signed his first professional contract.

Lisa Vega, who is executive director of the Mariano Rivera Foundation, said the organization will gather more metrics of success once school starts and grades begin.

Currently, six students are enrolled in the program, but Vega said four more students will join during the first year.

“We want to develop [the program] as much as we can, monitor the program, ensure that we’re at the standard we want to be, the foundation wants to be, and, most importantly, Mariano wants to be, so that we can expand our reach and expand the number of students that we outreach,” Vega said.

Mariano Rivera Foundation mentees unbox new laptops

Meshael Cruz is a senior who will transfer to Santa Fe High School later this fall. Coming into the program, he didn’t know any of the other students. In an interview he said they’re all pretty close now.

“They’re a really big help in this mentorship program,” Cruz said. “They can relate to a lot of stuff.”

Cruz said he’s excited to learn about real estate later in the program, because it’s a career field he’s interested in pursuing.

He said he joined the program because it presented a rare opportunity for help.

“I decided that I wanted that chance because not everybody gets it, not everybody gets that help that they need,” Cruz said. “So being able to get into the foundation was really a big thing for me.”

The Gainesville program is only the start. The foundation is building a learning center in New Rochelle, New York, that will provide resources to local families and students and host another mentorship program.

The building is scheduled to finish in early 2022, but the program will start sooner, sharing spaces with partner organizations—as the Gainesville location does with Ignite Life Center.

Vega said that the early success in Gainesville will serve as a starting point for New York.

In Houston, another program is in the works, slated to arrive in the summer or fall of 2022.

The program partners with the student’s home and school to create a network of support for the student, and these pillars in the students’ lives communicate with each other to better their roles.

“We’re all on the line of defense together to ensure that these students are getting the support, the resources that they need,” Omeben said.

She talked to the student’s guidance counselor nearly every day at the end of the spring semester.

In July, the six students traveled to New York City, visiting the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and the 9/11 Memorial.

“It was definitely an amazing experience to be around Mariano,” Cruz said.

The students helped out around the foundation as well, setting up tables, greeting people and even some cooking.

The visit also featured pit stops at Konica Minolta, a content management company, and DG3, one of the largest printing warehouses in the nation, to learn about digital marketing and sales―topics covered in the student’s vocational training.

Without the program, a trip to New York would be unlikely for the students.

“We know that there’s a disparity in the minority community abroad―not just here in Florida but in the entire United States,” Omeben said. “And we believe that this program is one of the answers that this community needs.”

Mariano Rivera with the first six students in Gainesville mentorship program

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