A tutoring and mentoring group in Montclair is celebrating two decades of helping girls and young women.

Sister to Sister is a program that pairs girls in the Montclair schools with women in the community who act as mentors. This year, Sister to Sister marked their 20th anniversary.

Since its inception, Sister to Sister has worked with more than 600 girls. This year there are between 95 and 100 girls participating, according to Executive Director Dottie Bennett.

Adele Clark Katz is the organization’s founder. She is still involved with Sister to Sister’s board, even though she retired from an active role in the organization last year.

The fact that 100 percent of the girls who participated in Sister to Sister have graduated from high school, and with a high rate of acceptance into university, is Katz’s point of pride.

The founding of Sister to Sister came from Katz’s own teenage experience. “I needed a mentor when I was their age,” Katz said.

Many girls suffer from low self-esteem, and a perception that adults don’t understand them. “I’m sure they think nobody understands them and everybody’s out to get them,” Katz said. Self-esteem is central to Sister to Sister’s mission, and the group helps students with life skills, college and career preparation, and health and wellness issues.

In the two decades since Sister to Sister’s founding, new challenges and difficulties have arisen, including the threat of school shootings and cyberbullying. “It’s even worse now, in addition to the regular stuff that teenagers have to deal with,” Katz said.

The featured speaker at the first meeting was a Montclair police detective. She arrived with five girls in tow, including her own daughter.

A similar organization, Brother to Brother - which Katz also helped found - pairs boys in the schools with male mentors in the community.

Sister to Sister started out as a program affiliated with the YWCA of Northern Essex County in 1998. The YWCA, which has since closed, is now home to the Geyer Family Branch of the Montclair YMCA. Sister to Sister then relocated to one of the middle schools, before establishing itself at Montclair High School.

The program began with five girls from Montclair, Belleville and Bloomfield.

Sister to Sister has also expanded to include girls in middle school and upper elementary school.

The mentoring program for high school students covers topics such as bullying, dating violence, life skills and college and career options. At a recent retreat, girls learned about which utensils to use during a formal dinner, and how to dress for a job interview, Katz said.

Community service is also a requirement. “They have to learn how to give back.”

Some of the older girls may act as mentors to the younger girls in the program, as well.

The girls who participate in Sister to Sister are primarily black or African American, while others are biracial or Latina. So the group works to accommodate the diversity in its membership, Katz said.

One alumna has become an attorney - the group’s first, Katz noted - and another is currently studying at Rutgers to become a doctor. Another alumna went on to teach English in Korea.

What Sister to Sister could really use, however, is an office. When the group was based at the YWCA, they had a permanent office space, where mentors and students could work in small groups, and where the girls could hang out in their spare time.

The girls who join Sister to Sister have a great deal of determination and drive to succeed, not to mention a strong sense of loyalty to each other, Katz said. “They honor and respect each other as Sister to Sister members,” she said. “If you pick on one, you’ve picked on the whole group.”

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