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By Buford Sears

Who could argue with the notion that our children are one of our greatest assets, and that investing in them will pay dividends long into the future? Unfortunately, too many of our children are not given the opportunities they need to succeed and, as a result, become caught in the achievement gap.

I’m fortunate to have seen firsthand how the power of mentoring can help bridge that divide and change lives. The support of a caring adult makes a world of difference.

January is National Mentoring Month, a time to acknowledge the thousands of children who face serious challenges without positive reinforcement or guidance from adult role models. These kids are more likely to engage in self-destructive behavior, and often miss out on chances to learn, grow and become more productive citizens. When a child forms a relationship with a caring adult, the impact is often immediate and transformative.

Mentoring provides a solution by building nurturing relationships between at-risk youth and adults dedicated to helping them. In order to increase opportunities to connect kids with mentors, First Niagara Bank partners with local nonprofits as part of the bank’s corporate-wide Mentoring Matters initiative.

Through it, First Niagara has seen significant benefits to local at-risk children, including stronger school attendance, better behavior, improved grades and substance abuse prevention.

We believe a hallmark of our program, and something we urge other Western New York companies to adopt, is a two-prong approach that combines significant financial and volunteer support. In 2013, we committed $1 million to provide mentoring services to more than 45,000 young people across New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Furthermore, our team members are encouraged to volunteer with mentoring initiatives in their communities, introducing students to the importance of saving and financial literacy, as well as providing exposure to possible careers in banking.

Businesses can play a special role in the mentoring movement because sharing our unique skills and experiences can illustrate to young people the connection between academic success and a promising future. Beyond that, we have the resources to generate results, even if it’s as simple as opening our office doors to those we mentor. The enthusiastic smiles and smart questions from kids visiting our bank’s offices never cease to amaze me, because – let’s face it – a trip to my workplace isn’t quite like a field trip to a firehouse. While we don’t have trucks to climb on or helmets to wear, from what I see, what kids really want is attention from adults who listen, encourage and offer unconditional friendship. Those are things all of us have to give.

Buford Sears is First Niagara Bank’s Western New York market executive.