Austin mentoring group receives award for helping West Side youth get to and through college

June 30, 2017
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Sherida McCoy still can’t believe her 19-year-old son, Kendall Jordan, is working as a camp counselor in northern Wisconsin this summer. The Illinois State University sophomore is experiencing a lot of firsts – including his first time going camping.

“He’s doing something he loves,” said McCoy, a longtime North Lawndale resident.

“You gotta get some education in it; you gotta get some fun in it; and you gotta make sure you are well-rounded.”

None of this could have happened, McCoy said, without the College Mentoring Experience, an organization located at 5846 W. Madison Ave. that aims to get the youth, especially those in Chicago’s under-resourced communities, to and through college.

The non-profit, started three years ago by Austin resident Bernard Lilly, offers college preparation and transition programs for youth ages 11 to 22, including one-on-one mentorship, SAT and ACT tutoring, statewide and nationwide campus tours, and workshops on financial aid and job interview techniques.

“A lot of our students on the West Side don’t get the opportunities that other communities get,” said Lilly, 48, adding the program is intended to “give them the opportunity they rightfully deserve,” from attending college to getting scholarships and internships.

Jordan, who’s been matched with a mentor since he was a student at Providence St. Mel School, received a CME scholarship and also participated in a couple of campus tours with his mentor, which his mom said helped him navigate the many options he had for college.

“They had conversations with him,” she said, adding the mutual bond formed through mentorship is necessary for those growing up in communities where going to college is not always expected.

Earlier this month, the College Mentoring  Experience received the Gold Star Award presented by Mentor Illinois, an organization that has facilitated more than 400 mentoring programs across the state.

“The award is to recognize CME’s high-quality mentoring practices,” Mentor Illinois’ Executive Director Margie Morris said last weekend during a reception at the College Mentoring Experience’s Austin office.

About 20 staff members, students and parents were on hand to celebrate the group being one of 20 across Illinois to receive the award.

The recognition, Morris said, is to encourage mentoring groups to “create the best environment for the youth to have the best outcomes.”

“Research shows students who have a mentor are more persistent in school and get better grades,” Morris said, citing the statistic they are 50 percent more likely to enroll in college and less likely to be involved in crime and violence.

But if mentors and mentees are not matched based on what they have in common and do not build an effective mentoring relationship, there might not be a successful impact on the young person, she noted.

The College Mentoring Experience has been committed to improving the matching process and diversifying its services, Lilly said.

“We do an interview with the mentee after the application online,” he said. “We look at their interest, geographic location and the mentor’s preference.”

The organization currently has 51 active mentors. most of whom are from the Austin area.

It’s important, Lilly said, for the West Side students who are adjusting to the first year of college to have a mentor by their side.

“Making that transition from high school to college has been the biggest challenge,” he said. “Most of our mentors are trained and have at least an undergraduate degree. They understand what it is and can talk them through it and be there for them.”

The organization is also putting together resources that can help reduce the costs of tutoring and higher education.

Theresa Hurt, program coordinator at College Mentoring Experience, said the key is to financially help the students stay in college.

“We are offering those students internships and scholarships inside and outside the program,” said the longtime Austin resident, who has worked with more than 100 students since the program launched in 2014.

The College Mentoring Experience has forged a partnership with the Sylvan Learning Center, which provides CME students with  discounts for its SAT and ACT training programs. The discount, Hurt said, has made it possible for a more lower-income families to take the courses that used to be considered unaffordable.

Jaidin Winfield, 16, said both the one-on-one mentoring and the tutoring have helped her.

“Sylvan helps with my physics,” said Winfield, who’s about to begin her second year at Riverside Brookfield High School. “And my mentor and I go out and spend time together. I ask her for advice.”

That’s how she finds ways to cope with stress and the challenge of time management.

“My mentor always checks on me to see how’s school going,” Winfield said. “She’s always making sure that I (am) on task and able to finish things by deadlines.”

With the help of the College Mentoring Experience staff, Jaidin said she has identified the university she’d like to attend.

“Tuskegee University in Alabama has caught my eye,” she said. “I’m in love with it.”

Winfield just returned from a one-week trip to Seattle with five other students and a few mentors, where they visited the University of Washington.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “And it was so much fun.”

This is the fourth year the organization has taken students to tour colleges outside Illinois. The previous trips included the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Lakeland University and Lawrence University in Wisconsin, as well as Central Michigan University.

“For many of them, it’s their first time going to such places,” Hurt said, adding it gives students “a sense of ‘wow, there’s so much more than what I come from.’”

The organization has expanded from the Austin neighborhood to other Chicago neighborhoods and the suburbs, too, Lilly said. Mentors now come from 26 communities and mentees from 28 schools located in 19 communities.

Still, there aren’t enough mentoring programs on Chicago’s West Side, he said, because “there are so many teens in such need.”

“They are not picking up a gun if they pick up a book,” he said. “And they don’t go to jail if they go to college.”

The next step, Lilly said, is to start group mentorship programs in schools across the city. The organization is working on partnerships for the upcoming fall, including with Plato Middle School, Michele Clark Magnet High School, Frederick Douglass Academy High School and Austin High School.

This will allow them to reach more young people and touch more lives, he said – and for West Side youth to choose “college over street corner, grades over drugs and graduation over guns.”

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