Finding a new direction

Jose Ponce, 33, recalls his childhood and adolescent years as difficult ones, marked by loss, such as that of his sister, who was killed in a car accident that left him — then 9 years old — severely injured in a body cast for years.

Growing up in east Petaluma, Ponce had difficulty steering his life in a positive direction, he said. That is, until he found purpose in building custom beach cruiser bikes.

Having learned welding and auto-body work from his father, he found that building these bikes was a positive outlet for him and a way to stay off the streets after school.

Now an industrial engineer and living in his native Petaluma, he hopes to bring that same experience to teenagers like him who may be struggling through their adolescent years. Piloting a new, project-based mentoring program with Mentor Me Petaluma, a youth mentoring organization that matches needy students with Big Brother — or Big Sister — like adults, Ponce is hoping that building the cruiser bikes will have the same positive effect on Joseph Perez, 14, that it did on himself.

And so far, it seems it has.

"I am enjoying everything I'm doing," Perez said. "It's keeping me out of trouble every day."

Just several weeks ago, things weren't going quite so well for him.

Perez was expelled from Petaluma Junior High, and was attending an alternative school, explained Mentor Me Petaluma executive director Deborah Dalton.

"He started hitting rock bottom," Dalton said. Now, after about four weeks into working with Jose to build a cruiser bike, he's getting the highest grades in his algebra class.

"He's showing up weekly to check in, he's with Jose all the time," she said. "It's completely given him a new lease on life."

While many of Mentor Me's mentors have worked on projects with their mentees, Dalton said, this is the first time that the organization — which serves 14 school campuses in Petaluma and has 300 active mentorships — will formally present project-based mentoring as a program. The organization is in lease negotiations to buy a building from the city that would provide enough space to scale project-based mentoring, she said, and thus wanted to pilot the program with Ponce and Perez.

Mentorships are often matched early on for at-risk students, who range in age from five to 17, but in middle school and high school, Dalton said, kids often lose interest and mentorships struggle — even as it is the time they might need mentorship he most. Working on projects could help the mentorships stay strong and give kids something to focus on.

"Teenage boys are crammed up — it's hard for them to talk," Dalton said. "What we discovered is that when you're doing an actual project with them, doing parallel work, they are able to be more vulnerable, braver and more courageous about their lives."

The bike that Ponce and Perez are building now from scratch will be auctioned off at Mentor Me's annual fundraiser — the Mad Hatter Ball — on March 29.

But their work will continue. Perez has discovered his love for working in a garage, and hopes to work in an auto-body shop, he said. Ponce has been taking time off from his work as an industrial engineer to devote himself to helping out kids like Perez.

"It taught me how to be strong and kept me strong," said Ponce of building and working on the bikes. "I'm trying to share that."

The 14th annual Mad Hatter Ball will be held from 6 p.m. to midnight at the Boys & Girls Club, 203 Maria Drive. The event features a seated dinner and dessert by Preferred Sonoma Caterers, a live auction, and dancing to The Grooveline band. Guests should be sure to wear a creative hat. There will be prizes for wittiest hat, tallest hat and best in show.

Tickets are $100 and include dinner, dessert, admission to The Rabbit Hole Spirits Lounge, beer and wine bar and non-alcoholic beverages.

For tickets to the Mad Hatter Ball or information on how to become a mentor, call 778-4798 or go online to mentormepeta luma.org.

(Contact Annie Sciacca at argus@arguscourier.com)