Junior Leadership Development Program in Butte County
By Melissa Mendonca
By Melissa Mendonca
Photo by Paula Schultz
After months at making small steps of connection with a quiet, withdrawn young man in his mentoring program, Jacob Peterson got to see the youth take strides that many hadn’t thought possible.
“One of the coolest experiences of my life was getting to go to his graduation. I got to be there front and center watching him walk across the stage to get his diploma,” says Peterson, 30, executive director of Junior Leadership Development Program in Butte County. “I got the feeling that the whole time he was just waiting for someone to watch him walk across the stage.”
Over the course of their early days in the mentoring relationship, Peterson learned that the third-year senior was homeless, alone and staying under a bridge at night. He wasn’t meeting expectations academically, and yet Peterson says, “I ended up being so inspired that he would even show up.”
It was experiences like this, and many others, that took Peterson from his Project Management in Business program at Chico State University to the world of nonprofits and youth/community development.
“Probably about halfway through my college career I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know I wanted to help other people,” he says. When the time came to do a capstone project for his business degree, he put together a youth development project working with young people at Table Mountain School at the juvenile detention center in Oroville.
He’ll admit he didn’t quite know what he was doing at the time, but he enjoyed putting together outings for the youth and serving as a role model. A year into it, he expanded his volunteer work to Fairview High School, an alternative education program, and began recruiting others to mentor students. He was working full time as a cook at In-N-Out Burger and volunteering on the weekends with probation youth. He’d signed up to mentor through the now-defunct Big Brothers Big Sisters program in Chico.
“From there, I made the decision that this is what I really want to do,” he says. “It’s such a gift being part of these kids’ lives, who maybe were feeling a bit lost, at such a critical juncture in their lives.”
Founding Junior Leadership Development Program as a 501(c)3 nonprofit was his effort to return a formalized mentoring program to Butte County. He hopes to expand services through the North State.
His desire to make a difference through mentoring came from the realization that the trajectory of his own life was directed by a mentor. “The journey really started when I was about 5 years old,” he says, relating how his two oldest siblings moved out, his parents separated, and his mom was diagnosed with cervical cancer. “It drastically changed our family structure and family dynamics. I always felt I didn’t have anyone to look up to.”
Thankfully, a member of his church stepped in as support. “I always tell people I was one of the lucky ones. I had someone who came around to help. He was the ultimate mentor. He was the first person who introduced me to the idea of college,” he says.
Junior Leadership Development Program has a college promotion component, incorporating information on the hows and whys of higher education with the mentoring. Part of this was inspired by his own success in college through the help of his mentor, as well as a comment a young woman in juvenile hall made to him. Everyone tells us to change, she said. No one shows us how.
“If you don’t have anyone showing you the way,” says Peterson, “how will you know?”
While promoting mentoring, Peterson also works full time as the development director for United Way of Northern California. As he reflects on what he’s been able to accomplish, he holds a special level of gratitude for the man that stepped into his life when it all seemed to be falling apart. “He held me to expectations that I didn’t hold myself to, but I wanted to live up to.”
Junior Leadership Development Program