Written By: Latoya Jones
“I was looking at pictures today and I cried. I was thinking about how way back then we were struggling and so poor and you two didn’t even know it. You two never gave me any trouble. I just wanted to let you two know that I love you dearly.”
This was the text message that I got from my mother while at work some months back. I am the oldest and I have a brother who is 2 years younger than me. I started to tear up while reading this and my coworkers asked what was wrong. I told them and we started to talk about our childhood experiences. It made me think about the same things the students we work with might be dealing with. I was a child who dealt with homelessness. My parents divorced by the time I was 6 years old. After the divorce, we lived in a shelter for some months. We moved in with family a bit after that and eventually bounced around living with either friends of my mother or with family. We did not have our own housing until I was in 6th grade. I did not get my own bedroom until I was in 12th grade. I knew that we were poor but my mom shielded how bad we struggled.
In my youth I had mentors who helped shape and mold my life. These mentors came in many forms: teachers at school, instructors at after school programs, Sunday school teachers, members at church, and family members. If it wasn’t for these mentors, I would not have had exposure to things outside of my world. These mentors in my life exposed me to art, theatre, Black history, different foods, the city outside of my neighborhood, and to what life would be like to go away for college. I was extremely shy in my youth. Knowing that I was so shy, I had countless adults who took it upon themselves to acknowledge me and ask me how I was doing. All of these people helped me in some way through my youth. Their presence was important, it brought some brightness into my life. I eventually attended college with encouragement from many of my mentors.
Mentorship is important for youth to experience, especially for the population Chicago HOPES for Kids serves. According to an article from Psychology Today, youth who have a mentor have fewer behavioral issues and are more confident. This is according to a 5 year study sponsored by Big Brothers, Big Sisters Canada. Also according to the article, youth with a positive mentoring relationship are twice as likely to go to college and less likely to indulge in drug use or break the law. Based on the research of this article, if you have the following six qualities, you would make a good mentor: supportive, active listener, you push youth just enough, you have an authentic interest in youth as an individual, you foster self decision-making, and you lend perspective. If you have most or all of these qualities, you should consider volunteering and being a mentor.
There many benefits for young people when they have a mentor. According to www.youth.gov, youth who have a supportive relationship with a mentor have a better attitude about school, enhanced self-esteem, improved behavior at home and school, and better relationships with teachers and parents. Some of the benefits that mentors receive are an increase in self-esteem and a “sense of accomplishment” as well as “increased patience and supervisory skills.” You may think that you do not have the time to volunteer but according to The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), “59% of all volunteers who engage in mentoring work full-time” and are more likely to volunteer than those who do not work. College students are the most likely to volunteer. Volunteering is a good experience for college students, especially with gaining supervisory experience and they’re not being too far removed from childhood. They can also relate better to young people. Many mentors are willing to work with youth from various backgrounds, whether they are children who are immigrants, children of incarcerated parents, and children with disabilities, according to CNCS.
Due to my childhood experiences, I decided that I wanted to give back and be a mentor to young people. When I was laid off from work, I decided to volunteer and came across Chicago HOPES for Kids. I am so glad that I did. My experience as a volunteer with this organization has been a great one. I volunteered at Primo when it was in the Austin neighborhood and then volunteered with SRHAC once we started a program there. I saw myself in the children in our program because I was once that child too. It is very important for people to give back to their communities. It is also very important for young people to see people who look like them and who come from the communities that they come from. As a Black child, it was important that a lot of my mentors looked like me. I did have mentors who were not Black and they touched my life very much as well, but the mentors who were Black definitely touched my life greatly. My family came from the Austin community and that is the community in which I was born. It was important for me to volunteer in that community. It was also important to me that the children saw a volunteer who looked like them. With that said, I am asking everyone to volunteer their time no matter your race, ethnicity, or background. I am especially calling for people of color to volunteer in communities of color.
Eventually, I became an Americorps VISTA with Chicago HOPES for Kids and I am now completing my year of service as of June 30th, 2018. I have learned so much from the staff and other Americorps at HOPES as well as the children we work with. Giving service is important. It helps the communities we work with. Being a mentor is important. You can start being a mentor by volunteering.The children in our program get so excited when they see us coming to program. It gives them a little bit of brightness in their life. It will give you a little brightness in yours too.
If you would like to volunteer with Chicago HOPES for Kids, please sign up here: http://www.chicagohopesforkids.org/volunteer/