By Alex Weisler Journal News
MOUNT KISCO— Colette Arena’s first job out of college was on the 71st floor of the World Trade Center, working as a systems engineer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from 1985 to 1987.
About 20 years later, Arena found herself intimately linked to the towers once again, serving as a mentor to 16-year-old Charlotte Jones of Croton-on-Hudson, whose father died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Mount Kisco resident, who just celebrated her fifth anniversary of mentoring Jones, was recently honored by Tuesday’s Children as its mentor of the year. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to helping children who lost a parent in the attacks.
Arena, who works in information technology for Mount Sinai Hospital, said she gets just as much from the relationship as she gives.
“Charlotte is just such a joy for me in my life. There’s days that I came home from work and felt, whatever, lonely or frustrated or wasn’t in a great mood, and in the mail was a letter from her,” she said. “I’ve gotten so much back. I’ve learned so much.”
The pair has formed a close bond. Arena was Jones’ Confirmation sponsor — Jones attends the all-girls Dominican Academy on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Arena is a devout Catholic — and is now teaching the teenager how to drive.
Jones said that she’s learned she can trust Arena with anything.
“It’s similar to how you know you’ll always keep up with your family because when it comes down to it, they’re your foundations,” she wrote in an email. “I’m sure Colette will stay in my life because she’s inserted herself there, and I don’t see any circumstance deteriorating the strong friendship we have.”
Sara Wingerath-Schlanger, programming director for Tuesday’s Children, said there are about 50 active mentoring relationships, with 12 to 15 in Westchester, Rockland and Orange counties. The organization recently expanded its focus to help the children of first responders who died from medical conditions developed after working at Ground Zero.
“Any child can benefit from an adult role model. Any child should have an adult in their corner who supports them, advocates for them,” said Wingerath-Schlanger, who lives in Suffern. “We can never replace their parents, but we can certainly replace the resources; we can certainly replace the support. We can be there as a teammate for the surviving child, as a role model for the child.”
Jones, whose mother, Carol Francolini, also arranged for Tuesday’s Children mentors for her older sister and her two younger brothers, said she credits Arena for the personal growth she’s experienced in the past few years.
“I’ve learned from Colette how to find the positive side in any situation, how to hold a mature conversation with an adult and how to be a better person by treating everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve,” she wrote in an email. “I think it’s safe to say both of us truly wish to see the other’s happiness throughout her life.”
And though their visits have become less frequent as Charlotte has settled into being a teenager, Arena said she and Jones are in it for the long haul.
“She said, ‘You know, godmother is different, godmother is for when you’re young, but Confirmation is for life,’” Arena recalled with a laugh. “And that’s how I kind of look at it. We are really both looking forward to a lifelong friendship.”