Jan. 5th: Y.O.U. Mentors and Mentor YOUth team in the Spotlight

Learn more about Y.O.U. mentors and the Mentor YOUth team in the following news article published by the Evanston Reveiw! If you're interested in becoming a mentor, we'd love to hear from you! Please contact Santrice at 847.866.1201 x330 or at Santrice.RussellMartin@youevanston.org

Mentors Make Time to Just Hang Out 
By: Karen Berkowitz
Published: January 3, 2012

Jenal Zak, 29, and Christopher Morris, 12, have established an easygoing rapport since the two started meeting weekly through the Youth Organizations Umbrella’s mentoring program.

“We talk about what happened during the day, and if I’m going on any field trips,” said Christopher, a seventh-grader at Chute Middle School. He fondly recalled the times they baked cupcakes (“they were delicious”) and made a pepperoni pizza almost from scratch, using ready-made dough to fit the baking project into their hour-long visit.

“Cooking is a nice bonding time for us,” said Zak, an Evanston resident of four years who was looking for a way to volunteer in the community. “I have noticed Chris really opens up when there is a little bit of a distraction. It isn’t just me looking directly into his eyes, saying, ‘Tell me about your day.’ ”

Each Wednesday during the school year, Zak starts her day early as a commercial lender for Comerica Bank in Oak Brook so she can leave early and meet up with Christopher at Chute Middle School at 5 p.m., just as he is finishing YOU’s after-school program.

Mentor-mentee pairs

About 30 mentor-mentee pairs meet regularly through the program, which is funded by a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The youths range from 11 to 18 years of age, and the sessions typically take place at Chute or Nichols middle schools and Evanston Township High School.

When the number of mentor-mentee pairs dwindled to a handful last fall, YOU ran a “40 mentors in 40 days” campaign that brought in a new wave of volunteers. The organization is still recruiting new mentors.

As part of the match process, both volunteers and prospective mentees are asked about their interests. The interviewer also tries to get a sense of their personalities to ensure a good fit.

“We try to match them so they have enough similar interests to create a relationship,” said Santrice Martin, volunteer coordinator with the Mentor YOUth program. “We also want to make sure they have enough differences so they learn from each other.”

Christopher said he was asked if he preferred a male or female mentor. “I said, ‘Either one; I don’t care,’” recalled Christopher, casting a wide grin in Zak’s direction that showed he’s quite pleased with how it all worked out.

When the two met up on Dec. 21, Christopher had some math homework to complete. So the two spent time figuring out a formula for calculating the number of calories in certain quantities of trail mix, or the amount of trail mix one would eat if consuming 1,000 calories.

Setting goals

D’Starr Owens, 13, and his mentor, Rachel Rigdon, have worked on goals. When Owens mentioned that he needed to bring his grades up, the two discussed specific things he could do to improve his grades, such as turning in homework and asking teachers or other adults for help.

“He came up with those all on his own,” said Rigdon, 24, a doctoral student at Northwestern University. Given the short, three-week timetable, the two decided to focus on homework completion. The challenge proved so successful, the two celebrated with take-out food from Chicken Shack.

Both Rigdon and D’Starr wrote on their mentor and mentee applications that they like to cook. They’ve made chicken tacos and ground-beef burritos.

“He actually went home and made the tacos for his mom,” said Rigdon. “It was really nice he could help her with dinner one night,” said Rigdon, noting that mom is juggling both work and school.

Christopher wasn’t always able to make the mentoring sessions last year, but Zak didn’t give up so easily.

“Jenal was available for him, whether he was available or not,” said Martin, of the consistency that is all the more important under such circumstances. “We could use a lot more Jenals.”

Said Zak, “I kind of went into it with the attitude, I am going to show him that somebody cares about him whether he hates me or loves me. I am going to ask him about his day, about how school is going.”

Zak marvels at the changes she’s seen, particularly this school year. She doesn’t take any personal credit. Rather, she believes a now-stable home situation has made the difference.

“It is like somebody turned a light on in him. He is much more happy and much more loving,” she said of Christopher. “Our relationship has come a long way.”

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