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Study: Illinois youth mentoring programs need volunteers, resources

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Updated: April 20, 2014 6:09AM

Against a backdrop of national efforts to address problems derailing young men of color, a new study of mentoring programs in Illinois finds most providing services to at-risk youth have few resources, no training and a dearth of male volunteers.

Even worse, most fail at best-practice standards governing reference checks, supervision of mentoring relationships and program evaluation — failures that expose youth to potential harm, according to the study by the nonprofit Illinois Mentoring Partnership.

“We have all these good people desperate to do something good for kids, but who could be doing harm if they don’t have all of the information they need in order to support youth,” said Sheila Merry, executive director of the mentoring partnership.

President Barack Obama last month introduced “My Brother’s Keeper,” a potentially game-changing initiative to bring together foundations, corporations and community groups to seek solutions on breaking negative cycles ensnaring young men of color in minority communities nationwide.

He additionally established a task force to sift through and identify the most effective public and private efforts, offering as a model the Becoming a Man program run by Youth Guidance of Chicago. That program’s success has been attributed to a heavy dose of mentoring.

“Our survey found that we are underserving boys. The vast majority of mentor volunteers are women,” said Merry.

Jourdan Sorrell, the young, committed president of 100 Black Men of Chicago, Inc., a chapter of the 100 Black Men of America, founded in 1963, says the shortage of male volunteers who can serve as role models is a reason mentoring became such an important part of 100’s mission.

“It is not only our responsibility but our obligation to cultivate future leaders,” said the 32-year-old Sorrell, a University of Notre Dame graduate who left a corporate job last year to enroll at the University of Chicago and pursue a master’s degree in social services.

“I found my passion in the work we do at 100 and am dedicating myself to it,” Sorrell said.

“Our motto is ‘Mentoring across a lifetime,’ and we use a curriculum called ‘Mentoring the 100 Way.’ Designed in part with the University of Phoenix, it speaks to not only academic performance but more importantly, to the social emotional development of youth.”

The state mentoring survey was conducted last summer and fall by the Illinois Mentoring Partnership and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Data from 152 responding organizations — with 17,819 mentors serving 34,297 youth — unveiled a rich diversity in program approach and in the demographics of volunteers statewide.

But it also found more than 40 percent of programs operating with fewer than two full-time staff; half had annual budgets under $50,000; a fourth had budgets under $10,000.

More worrisome was that while almost all conducted criminal background checks on mentors, over a third did not check references. A quarter of them failed to provide ongoing, routine supervision of mentoring relationships and less than half had any formal process to offer support when ending them.

“If a mentoring relationship has to end for any reason, there needs to be a formal procedure to help that happen, so that this isn’t one more adult that has let a child down,” said Merry. “That’s when we risk doing more harm than good.”

Against that grain, 100 Black Men of Chicago mentors undergo rigorous background checks, said Sorrell; and youth are mentored in groups, to improve oversight.

Jeremy Gaines says what he likes most about the 100 Black Men of Chicago program are the rap sessions with mentors. He attends a two-hour, Saturday program offered at one of four sites.

“We can be honest and you can have your own opinion without being judged. I feel I can talk to them about anything,” said the Oak Park 16-year-old. “The field trips are fun, too.”

Much research has shown effective mentoring programs to have significant impact. Yet another study, released in January by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, found positive life outcomes for mentored youth and young adults, ranging from academics and community involvement to leadership and career development.

In Chicago, efforts targeting youth in high-violence neighborhoods with jobs, mentorship and behavioral therapy yielded such significant results that city officials have now tied that formula to any funding of programs run by community groups.

Findings of the Illinois study will be used to design training and technical assistance for the mentoring programs, in advocacy and in recruitment efforts, particularly among male adults.

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