Brooklyn Heights resident Tyler Drayton clearly remembers the first time he met the “lovely, shy, self-deprecating” kid with whom he was about to embark on a four-year mentoring journey.

It was 2018, and the first meeting with 15-year-old Gabriel Deleon and his mom was arranged in the basement of a school on the Upper East Side over some “cold pizza and flat Coke.”

There were some nerves, but the pair managed to work it out while Deleon translated between Drayton and his mom, who immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic before Deleon was born.

That first meeting was to be the start of a mentorship that would flourish over the years into a relationship that the pair now considers to be more like family.

On Wednesday, Drayton will be honored at this year’s MENTOR NY MENTOR of the Year awards held at the Bowery Hotel in Manhattan.

As Drayton collects his honor, the young man who he mentored—Deleon—is also winning. Through the support of his mentorship with Drayton, the 18-year-old this year started at Rochester Institute of Technology, a school he said he was nervous to apply to because he didn’t think he would have a chance.

Tyler Drayton and mentee Gabriel. Photo: Student Sponsor Partners / Supplied

But with Drayton’s encouragement, Deleon is now completing his education with a full scholarship. “The next student to have him as a mentor will be so lucky,” Deleon said.

The story highlights the power that mentorship can have in a young person’s life, and Drayton strongly encourages other adults to consider giving back as a mentor.

When Drayton moved from Sydney, Australia, to Brooklyn, New York, in 2017, he soon decided that he wanted to get more involved in his new community through mentoring.

He signed up with Student Sponsor Partners, and in 2018 was matched with Deleon, a high school student from Crotona Park in South Bronx, one of the neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates in New York City.

“You can work in these big anonymous corporate buildings and feel like you’re not part of the city in many respects,” Drayton told BK Reader. “This was a great opportunity to get to know someone living in the same city, but living a very different life than I was,” he said.

From the get-go, he wanted to show Deleon that he was going to be there for him consistently.

“A lot of people in Gabe’s position don’t have many role models in their life,” he said.

“They’re not used to having someone, particularly a white male who works at a consulting firm, coming into their life and showing prolonged interest in their growth and development.

“The early years were about me showing that I was going to be there for him. And therefore, that it was worth him investing his time and energy in me.”

The mentorship program that Drayton and Deleon did, through Student Sponsors Partners, is four years, so the pairings have plenty of time to make a difference in each other’s lives.

Families combine through mentorship. Tyler Drayton and his family with Gabriel Deleon and his mom. Photo: Student Sponsor Partners / Supplied

At the beginning, Drayton would make sure they met monthly, and always had another meeting in the calendar when they left off from one-another. Over the years, Drayton has seen Deleon grow and reach impressive milestones such as getting into Rochester Institute of Technology, and applying for and being accepted to a coding internship.

“He is deeply empathetic, he is quietly driven. He cares a lot about his family, particularly his mother who has raised him his entire life in a one-bed apartment in the Bronx,” Drayton said of Deleon. “He’s very smart, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve.”

Drayton said the thing he feels he has helped his mentee with the most is providing an awareness of opportunities he would otherwise feel he wasn’t entitled to. “A recurring theme of our relationship was me telling him, ‘There’s no reason you can’t, these opportunities are for you as well.'”

For Drayton, the experience has been as enriching for him as he hopes it has been for Deleon.

He said, moving to New York, he knew it would be a “tale of two cities.” Mentoring drove home that fact for him. It also helped him put down roots, and feel like he was more a part of the fabric of the city. When Drayton had his first child during the pandemic, he couldn’t wait for Deleon to meet the baby. They visited the family in the Bronx where they ate home-cooked Dominican food like family.

Nowadays, Drayton is on the junior board of Student Sponsor Partners—which nominated him for Mentor of the Year—and is urging others to get involved, especially male mentors.

Student Sponsor Partners also provides scholarships to private high schools like the one Deleon attended, as well as college and career prep programming.

Student Sponsor Partners VP of Programs and Corporate Partnerships Mary Faddoul said the organization currently is seeking “great mentors like Tyler” for its freshman class.

The organization has more than 80 students currently attending high school in Brooklyn and has an incoming class of more than 320 students citywide, she said. Echoing Drayton, she said the organization has a high need for male mentors.

Those who are interested in mentoring can complete an application online here.

Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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