Sunday, September 28, 2014

Celebrating achievements of Chicago tutor/mentor programs

Over this past weekend I had the pleasure to be the guest of two Chicago youth serving organizations who were celebrating milestones.

One was the Youth Service Project (YSP) which operates out of a converted storefront at 3942 West North Avenue. Their Facebook page shows they have been active since 1975.
YSP was celebrating a youth technology/job training program, called "igniTechLab" which it had operated this past summer. About 30 people, including youth, parents and volunteers were treated to an overview of the program, and three presentations by youth, who showed what they had learned from the program. Two teens showed how to build a web page without using formats like DreamWeaver or FrontPage.
Two others talked of the music lab they had set up on the second floor and the documentary of life in Humboldt Park that they were working on. The project leader described how she had built the curriculum from scratch after receiving a government grant. She was not sure how the project would continue since no source of funding has yet been found.

On Saturday, I attended the 50th year celebration of the tutoring program at 4th Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue, right across from the Water Tower shopping center. The celebration was held in a elegant new building which must have cost several million dollars to build. When I first connected to this program in 1974 it was not known by its current name of Chicago Lights Tutoring.

From 2 till 3pm myself and 200 to 300 former and current volunteers, friends of the program and current and former students were encouraged to walk through the classrooms devoted to the tutoring program on the 5th floor of the Gratz Center which is the new addition to the church's mission. This program serves more than 400 pairs of youth and volunteers annually, and has had that enrollment for over 40 years at least.

I was delighted to see the timeline posted on the wall of one of the classrooms showing roots going back to the mid 1960s. The program I led at the Montgomery Ward headquarters on Chicago Avenue started at about the same time. This time line shows how I joined it in 1973 as a volunteer and became the leader in 1975. It shows that in 1976 I began inviting leaders of area programs, including 4th Presbyterian Church, to gather monthly for lunch and to share ideas. This networking eventually led to the formation of the Tutor/Mentor Connection in 1993.

At 3pm all of the guests of the Chicago Lights Celebration gathered in a large chapel where we first heard Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, talk about how important mentoring and the attention of just one caring adult can be in the life of a child growing up. When I sat in my seat at the start of the 3pm session I was surprised to find myself sitting next to Bob Greene, a former Chicago Tribune writer, who wrote some great stories about the tutoring program at 4th Presbyterian Church, like this one.

Two of the veteran volunteers who spoke gave direct credit to Bob's stories for their becoming involved in the program. I'm not sure what percent of total volunteers stay with the program 5, 10 or 15 years, but it seems that they have many long-term veterans, demonstrating a well organized program. I kept hearing from volunteers "I've gained more from this than I think my mentee did."

During the next 90 minutes I heard volunteers and student alumni talk about how important the Chicago Lights Program had been in their lives. This resonated with me because every year since 1973 I've been part of a similar gathering of youth, parents, volunteers. This video is from one of those.

Find more videos like this on Tutor/Mentor Connection
You can see many more Cabrini Connections videos here.

When I sat next to Bob Greene I reminded him that I had reached out to him in the 1990s asking him if he'd tell stories of the other tutor/mentor programs in Chicago, not just the great one operating on Michigan Avenue. When I've met with leaders and organizers of the 4th Presbyterian Church program over the last 40 years I've encouraged them to build an active outreach to motivate and teach faith groups from the entire Chicago region to partner and support the growth of well funded, mentor rich programs like the one they operate.

This is one of many maps I've made showing the density of faith groups in the Chicago region. Many of those operating in poverty areas don't have the wealth of churches operating on Michigan Avenue or in the North, West and South suburbs of Chicago. However, those who do have such wealth, of talent, not just money, could make a commitment to help at least one high poverty neighborhood build a program that in 50 years would be considered one of the best in the country of helping kids from poverty connect with a wide range of adults who helped them grow up and move into adult roles and careers.

Alex Kotlowitz said of the Chicago Lights program "It's a miracle that uses shared time to turn strangers into families" and "this program changes lives of youth and volunteers".

One of the later speakers said "It's not so important to bring a child into the world as it is to make a difference in the life of a child."

It takes the vision, and commitment, of many people from many sectors to help make this happen. As we move through this school year I hope many will read the ideas I've shared on this blog and look at web sites of different youth tutoring/mentoring programs in Chicago and make a commitment to help at least one.

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