It’s been a tough haul since Steven Summerall’s parent went to jail, but the teen found help thanks to a program that matches caring adults with children of the incarcerated. William Glover had signed on as a mentor through the Chicago Youth Centers and was matched with Steven, who is now 15.
In the past year, the pair have attended movies, festivals in Chicago and they try to have breakfast together every Sunday morning. In the last year, Glover has seen changes in Steven.
"He’s not as shy as he was last year. When he’s with me, he’s really talkative and that’s a great thing."
Steven really enjoys hanging out with Glover, too.
The Chicago Youth Centers mentor program, started in 2003, aims to change the lives of the 90,000 children who have parents in jail, on probation or on parole.
"Because these kids now have one more thing to make them feel different, we simply provide one more person who is supportive, who cares about the child," says Cheryl Howard, director of mentor and volunteer services for CYC.
Children between the ages of 4 and 16 are eligible for the program and can be referred by word-of-mouth from a relative, church leader or teacher. The Illinois Department of Corrections allows presentations to be given at the prisons to parents who can then recommend their child for the program. Once kids are accepted, the search for a mentor begins.
"Teenage boys generally do not want to play basketball or video games with adult women," says Howard. "While we can definitely use female volunteers, we do need more men."
Unfortunately there aren’t enough mentors to go around, which is why CYC is recruiting more mentors for its Making Mentoring Meaningful Program.
"We have a waiting list of around 39 kids," Howard says.
Interested candidates need to fill out a four-page application with questions varying from listing your strengths to the reasons you want to become a mentor. For the safety of the children in the program, references are requested and background checks are performed.
Once a mentor is accepted, he must attend a training session and get fingerprinted.
Mentors are asked to meet with their assigned child two to three times per month for at least two to three hours at a time. Weekends or weekdays are acceptable, as long as the activities are fun for both. Opportunities are available throughout the city and suburbs.
While the preferred commitment is one year, the relationships can extend for as long as is acceptable to both parties and can benefit both the adults and the children.
The rewards go both ways for Glover and Steven.
"I feel so rewarded when I see how happy Steven is," Glover says.
Howard knows how beneficial these relationships have been for the children in her program who have seen higher grades in school and greater satisfaction with life.
"These friendships keep the kids on the straight and narrow," she says. "They experience something different from their normal lives and know there’s more out there for them to see."
If you are interested in becoming a mentor, visit the CYC online at www.chicagoyouthcenters.org and click on Volunteer & Partners. You can view examples of mentoring, the application, pictures of kids and their mentors and learn more about the mentoring program.
"A lot of people think you need to have special qualifications. But these volunteers are just average people with an average amount of time," Howard says. "It doesn’t take an extraordinary person to be an extraordinary mentor."
Michelle Sussman is a mom, wife and writer in Bolingbrook. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her Web site at www.michellesussman.com.
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