Merchants shower mentors with appreciation

Merchants shower mentors with appreciation

URBANA – Though the Thursday lunch crowd dispersed, Courier Cafe still hopped with customers at half past one, with nearly everyone at the front tables enjoying one of the restaurant's decadent milkshakes.

"It's a vanilla malt," Ann Corey said. "I love it."

But these shakes aren't only sweet-tooth satisfaction. They're thank-yous to the 350 or so people who volunteer an hour every week to hang out with students in the Urbana and Champaign school districts as part of the C-U One-to-One Mentoring Program.

Including Corey. The UI employee has been mentoring two students, one in each twin city, for several years now.

"I listen to them. I do tell them things they should do when they're not behaving correctly. Basically I'm just a sounding board," she said. Along with the advice comes lots of fun, she said. "I revert back to childhood and teenage-hood when I'm around them."

As part of National Thank Your Mentor Day, businesses around town showed their appreciation on Thursday. Mentors could get a free rose from the Blossom Basket, free medium drink from Aroma Cafe and discounts from stores like Monical's Pizza, Fiesta Cafe and Dandelion, among several other businesses.

Courier owner Allen Strong said he's donated the milkshakes to mentors annually for years now, and he'd happily give away thousands of them for the program.

"It's a very, very small thing that we can do," he said. "What's great about (the program) is it's such a nice intersection of today's leaders and tomorrow's leaders."

District Superintendents Gene Amberg and Arthur Culver kicked off the event with their thanks.

"We really appreciate it, and it's very much needed," Amberg said.

"I don't think you guys realize the difference you make with these kids," Culver said. "You're the highlight of their day."

Culver mentors four students. "I've just seen kids that come from tough backgrounds," he said. "These mentors give them a lot of hope and encouragement."

Ron Guenther, head of the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, came to represent the UI, which allows employees to leave work for a paid hour each week to volunteer with the students. "It's a win-win situation," he said. "It's a terrific program. I'm watching it firsthand since my wife got involved."

Longtime mentor Willard Broom said the experience has been personally rewarding. He relishes being a part of a young person's "growth and development," he said, especially now that his own kids have grown up.

Bill Hobbs and Rich McMurray not only mentor, they encourage employees at their small business, Brown, Hobbs & McMurray Insurance, to help out the schoolchildren as well.

"Every one of us, it's been real rewarding," McMurray said. He and his mentee tend to play pingpong during their meetings. "He's going to beat me within a month," McMurray predicted. "He's getting really good."

Hobbs said that he thought he saw a difference when his mentee, who'd had some problems with attendance, began showing up every day the two would meet.

Strong said the mentors deserve the thanks, in the form of milkshakes and otherwise.

"Today's kids are really looking for inspiration," he said. "These are real-life, real positive role models."

Program faces shortfall at end of school year

As the C-U One-to-One Mentoring Program has grown, so has its scope, say mentor coordinators Barbara Linder and Brenda Koester.

Within the program, about 350 adults meet individually with students to counsel, play games or simply hang out. About 1,300 more community volunteers tutor students and help out in classrooms or other ways, contributing about 20,000 hours in the 2005-06 school year, said Linder and Koester.

But that scope could be shrinking soon. The program – a collaboration between the Champaign and Urbana school districts – is in the third year of a three-year federal grant. It has received about $200,000 a year, Koester said.

"The money runs out at the end of the school year. There is no possibility of us getting another federal grant," Linder said.

That funding goes toward paying program coordinators in each school.

The school-based help has enabled the program to grow, Linder said.

"What they've done is try to increase community involvement," Koester said.

Both are trying to encourage the school districts to make up some or all of that difference.

"What we're trying to articulate and communicate is that this should be a priority because of its proven effectiveness," Koester said, citing examples of students increasing grades and test scores. "These are effective ways to help students achieve."

They said the funding will be key to keeping those in-school coordinators and to the program's success.

"The ability to provide ongoing support for our mentors will be in jeopardy," Koester said. "We can't really maintain the numbers that we have if we don't have the staff."

They said they'd presented information to the school boards and talked with district administrators. Both are hopeful the school districts will be able to find money in their budgets for the program.

"We live in a very supportive community," Koester said.

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