Mentors make difference

URBANA – Early in his middle school career, Heaven Gray had one goal, to be drafted some day by the pros to play basketball.

Now the Urbana Middle School eighth-grader has revised that ambition. He thinks going to college, and playing basketball there first, might be a better option. He gives his mentor, Paul Harleston, credit for helping him review the options – and for helping him improve his grades so that college is possible.

"At first, I never thought about college," Heaven said. "I thought school was boring, but Paul helps me with school, and I feel better about it now. He taught me ways to think about it as being fun, and he taught me to take responsibility for my actions."

"It's valuable to participate in a kid's life," said Harleston, a former teacher who's now director of finance for Champaign-based United Way.

Harleston and Heaven have worked together for three years, and they're friends outside school as well as during the hour a week the mentoring program requires.

"I get so much out of it," Harleston said. "It's my favorite hour of the week."

Barbara Linder, Urbana schools' community connections coordinator, said the communitywide mentoring program started 10 years ago with 24 volunteers from National City Bank. It has grown to include 76 youngsters at the middle school and 29 at Urbana High School.

"They're usually referred by teachers who recognized kids who need more support for a variety of reasons," Linder said. "They might be underachieving. They might be shy. And the program has grown. As it's become more visible, kids sometimes refer themselves.There are more children who want mentors than mentors, so we're always recruiting."

The program, called C-U One-to-One, follows recognized standards for school-based programs and mentor training.

"One thing Champaign's trying to do is make sure all mentoring follows best practices like background checks, training and ongoing support and site supervision," said Brenda Koester, who started this school year as the district's full-time mentor coordinator. "There are standards each step of the way."

Koester worked with Linder, spending part of her time in Champaign and part in Urbana, - for several years before she took charge of the expanding Champaign program.

Both she and Linder have been marking National Mentoring Month in January by trying to spread the word about the benefits of mentoring to community residents who qualify and to businesses who release employees from work to participate.

Mentors and students meet at Urbana Middle School's community room once a week for an hour to do a variety of activities that include playing games, reading, working on computers and sometimes discussing classwork.

"You need to be able to listen," Linder said. "That's the biggest qualification. You need to listen without judging or interrupting. And you have to understand your role. You're not a parent or a teacher. You can't always fix things. You have to learn what's possible and what's not, what you can do and what you can't. It's not tutoring. It's relationship building."

She and Koester conduct two training sessions for mentor volunteers, and they also hold an orientation at the building where they will be meeting their students.

"Our program's larger than most," Linder said. "We have tremendous support from the administration. Our superintendent, all three assistant superintendents and other central office staff members are or have been mentors."

Superintendent Gene Amberg's student, Kendre Hall, wrote about their relationship in a letter for a recent program celebration.

"One thing I know is that you come every week," Kendre wrote. "I like that! I always know this is our special time together. I can talk to you about anything and some people never get a chance to do that. If I tell you about my problems and I don't want to you tell anyone, you keep your promise. That is good! You are a fun person to work with and be with."

Koester said until recently, the Champaign mentoring program was fragmented because it didn't have central leadership, but now it's growing quickly.

"The only other thing Champaign had was informal school mentoring, teachers pairing with students who need a little extra help," she said. "The district sent many students from Columbia back to their home schools and they tried to pair staff members with those students to help them. I'm doing extra training for the staff that wants to do that, talking about how this is different from your role as a teacher."

"We rely on staff members to spot kids who need help," Koester said. "For example, a lunchroom supervisor noticed one little girl who had no one to sit with, no friends, and recommended her. We try to have a site coordinator at each school to take recommendations for students, then prioritize."

She said she'd like to find up to 100 more mentors in Champaign to meet the need.

Currently, Koester said, 87 elementary students and 102 middle school and high school students in Champaign have mentors, some of them teachers and some community volunteers.

Urbana's elementary school mentoring program hasn't officially been active since the district, in a series of cost-cutting moves, had to eliminate site coordinators' positions. But volunteers like Tina Gunsalus run programs at individual schools like Leal, and Gunsalus said Linder gives her program as much support as she can.

"The need is tremendous, and it's beyond what I can do as a volunteer," Gunsalus said.

Linder and Koester said the One-to-One mentoring program has been so successful, it has started a foundation that grants program graduates money for college, scholarships of up to $350 per semester for up to two years.

Harleston and Heaven worked on homework early in their relationship. Linder said each team decides what activities they want to focus on and homework may or may not be part of them.

Now Harleston and Heaven see each other outside school too. They go out to eat, they teach each other moves on the basketball court and they recently built a propeller car together for one of Heaven's classes.

And they talk.

"He gets a chance to see that adults make mistakes too," Harleston said. "I'll say, 'I did something wrong here. How could I do it differently?' And we talk about it."

"I used to get into trouble," Heaven said. "We talk about how to avoid situations. My new attitude has helped my grades. They were pathetic last year. They're 1,000 times better this year."

"He's looking at his best grades in middle school," said Harleston proudly, adding that Heaven's talking about making a modification to the propeller car he built to turn his B grade into an A.

Success helps.

"Things aren't as hard as they used to be," Heaven said. "I did a Three Little Pigs rewrite for an English class, I got extra credit, and the teacher wants to keep it as a model for other students."

You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at acook@news-gazette.com.

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