Pre-Collegiate Mentor Thomas van Straaten
June 13, 2009
Erma Bombeck once said, “Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience, and just plain love for one another.” Thomas van Straaten, an avid volunteer, is one of those unselfish people who seem to better our world everyday with his love, patience, and compassion. Straaten is a newly named mentor to eighth grade students at Basalt Middle School. He has paired with the Pre-Collegiate Program (PCP) to educate, train, and prepare students for college and post-academic life.
The Pre-Collegiate Program’s main goal is to develop relationships, promote healthy decisions, and ultimately guide students down the collegiate path. “100% of the kids enrolled in the program, past and present, have gone to college, including two young ladies that were pregnant,” Pre-Collegiate Director Adriana Ayala-Hire said. The PCP has thrived in this valley for more than three years and is offered to students whose parents have either not attended college or did not complete college.
van Straaten is not a native born Coloradoan, but was originally born and raised in Chicago, Ill. He was born on July 31, 1935, and grew up in the Highland Park area with his mother, Virginia, and father, Herbert. From an early age van Straaten struggled with school, “I had terrible grades, it’s a miracle I even graduated high school.” Although difficult, van Straaten was persistent and eventually graduated and attended a junior college in California.
“I didn’t like that school either,” van Straaten said. “I was again getting C’s and D’s and I didn’t know what to do.” Halfway through his freshman year he befriended Professor Fisher who taught history at the school. “He mentored me, and I have everything today thanks to him.” After his encounters with Fisher, van Straaten started earning A’s and B’s and transferred to Stanford University at the beginning of his junior year.
After college, van Straaten went to work at the Van Straaten Corporation, a chemical company founded by his father. He worked his way through the ranks, soon heading the company, and keeping it open until 1987. van Straaten moved to the valley in 1996 and has lived here on and off for the past 12 years.
van Straaten is also no first timer to the act of volunteering; he previously adopted a seventh grade class in partnership with the “I Have a Dream” Foundation during the time when he lived in Los Angeles. He also volunteered as the director of Chamber Music America in New York City, so it comes as no surprise that van Straaten was more than excited to join the PCP. “I heard about the Pre-Collegiate program and knew right away that I wanted to be a mentor,” van Straaten said.
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“I first met Tom at an Aspen Community Foundation meeting,” Ayala said. “He believed in the power of mentoring and I was very impressed with what he had to say; he was a true gentleman.”
Reynis Vazquez, one of ten eighth grade mentees of van Straaten, had much to say about her new mentor and friend. “He has taught us a lot about what to expect in high school, as well as ways I can improve my grades and get into the college I want to get into.”
van Straaten hasn’t been with the PCP for more than a year, but has already realized the magnitude of his mentorship. “In some way I can be at least partially responsible for seeing that these students get into college, which is an amazing feeling.”
Final thoughts Vazquez had of Straaten, “He really cares about us and wants us to do the best we can at school; he is just a really nice person.”