02/21/2013 06:47 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

One Big Family: Empowering Low-Income Students to Rise Above

By Sean Buxton, Volunteer Student Mentor, Students Rising Above

I was introduced to Students Rising Above (SRA) by an old high school friend who has been volunteering with the organization as a student mentor. I wanted to get involved with an organization here in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had previously volunteered with larger nonprofits but they felt more like poorly run businesses than charities.

Due to my own life experience of losing a parent to tragedy at the age of 11, I had a desire to work with kids who had gone through a similar experience. Students Rising Above helps low-income students who are the first in their family to go to college. Many of their students have overcome serious hardships. I wasn't sure if SRA would be the right fit for me, but I wanted to find out.

My friend took me out to dinner with Kirsten McCarthy, SRA's Mentoring Program Coordinator, to learn about the organization and its volunteer opportunities. I came away impressed with SRA's overarching structure, its hands-on approach, and its family-like feel. It quickly became clear to me why SRA was a great organization, why their fundraising efforts were growing in a shrinking economy, and why they just sent their largest class of 50 kids to college. They have great people who are passionate about what they do, from the very top of the organization down to volunteers like me.

Helping Low-Income Students Strive for a Better Life
Working alongside such dedicated people is rewarding. But it became all the more special when I started interacting with some of the students. I absolutely loved the fact that these were kids who, with no help from anyone, had taken it upon themselves to rise above their unique hardships and backgrounds, and to strive for a better life. Who wouldn't want to help someone like that?

Students Rising Above isn't there to reward students for coming from adversity -- or even for overcoming it. Rather, the organization is there to say, "Hey, we like what you are doing, and we are willing to provide a robust set of resources to help you demonstrate initiative, and to gain the skills and experiences you need to compete and succeed in the real world."

SRA assists and teaches these kids not only how to get into college and take advantage of every grant and scholarship that might be out there, but they also pledge to work with them until graduation. SRA helps its students explore opportunities through internships and study abroad programs. SRA is not a handout organization; these kids work very hard. Their drive and maturity are impressive.

Hiring an SRA Intern
Last summer, my wealth management firm hired a summer intern from SRA. We were really lucky with this intern. She showed great interest in learning our business -- an area she knew nothing about and probably would never have been exposed to -- and she jumped right in.

We spent the summer teaching her about investing and the principals of financial planning. Working with her was tremendously rewarding; we hope to hire an SRA intern every summer. This year, I have also had the opportunity to mentor to a student who will be going off to college in the fall. It has been so much fun getting to know my student. I can't wait to find out where he ends up going to college.

SRA's Support Network
One of the great things I have found about being involved with SRA is its support network. I can't stress enough how it feels like a big family. There are newsletters, events, and numerous points of contact, all to assist you in making the experience a fun and gratifying one for both you and your student. Everyone in the organization is rooting for everyone else, and everyone is committed to doing everything to provide these kids with as many opportunities as possible.

When you meet the students at SRA, you really get it. You can't help but want to do everything you can to help them, as they have done so much to help themselves. Their drive to rise above their backgrounds, to better themselves, and to do it at such a young age, is truly remarkable.

What really separates SRA to me is that it isn't about a singular event. It doesn't end with submitting the college applications. It doesn't end when the students get into college, or receive a scholarship or grant. SRA doesn't end even when the students earn their college degree (although technically I do believe that is the end of the program). SRA is there to be a lifelong resource, a friend, and truly a mentor. SRA empowers kids to change their lives and use higher education to break the cycle of poverty.

Help SRA Help Others
SRA has helped hundreds of extraordinary young adults break the cycle of poverty through mentoring, college education, and job training. The more funding and awareness we raise, the more students we can help. Please visit our fundraising page on CrowdRise, and support our efforts to change the lives of hard-working young men and women in our country. Thank you.