Jessica is nine; she likes butterflies and the color purple. She dreams of traveling the world and being a singer. She is part of a single-parent family, and there is never a dull moment with her four-year old brother and her mother’s full-time job as an elderly care-giver. I am her mentor. I go once a week to Willowbrook Corner and the community center in the housing complex where she lives. Although just miles from the affluent communities of Burr Ridge and Hinsdale in DuPage County, this is truly a “pocket” of poverty where over 75% of students in the local district are low-income. Every Monday, Jessica’s mom drops her off and picks her up from the program like clockwork. Jessica isn’t allowed to walk even though their apartment is in the same complex as where we meet. Like many across our nation, Jessica’s family is doing the best they can to make ends meet while also participating in programs to provide them with opportunities for the best and brightest future. If I were not working for United Way, I often think I would be a teacher. It was this in part that encouraged me to seek out the mentoring program through one of United Way’s partner organizations, Metropolitan Family Services (MFS). From the healthy snack and physical activities, to the homework help I provide and our talks about Jessica’s future, this program encompasses the cornerstones of United Way’s work– the importance of financial stability, quality education, and a healthy lifestyle. The program is shaping youth who will positively contribute to our communities and, as a result, face a better future. Once a child like Jessica enters the services, they and their family are provided with a network of support beyond the one afternoon that I can offer each week. Some days Jessica and I do craft projects and add to the scrapbook we started, other afternoons we fish in the pond in the apartment complex and play on the swing set outside. Sometimes she is silly and tells me funny stories, other times she shares things with me that I know are hard to talk about. Most of the time we are friends and confidants. Occasionally there are challenges. As a recent match, Jessica is still testing me and whether or not I am up to the challenge. One day she looks through pictures of my family; she makes fun of my dad when she sees him making a goofy face in one of the candids. She tells me she only sees her dad once every few months. The things we share and learn together– compassion, patience, determination, talking about our feelings–are life lessons not always found in books or traditional curriculum, but it is the type of support that every child deserves. There is a joy that comes with a child’s acceptance and love. There is a joy in knowing that you are helping to shape the person they will become. Sometimes kids just need someone who believes in them. Volunteer reading, tutoring or mentoring one hour each week can change the life of a child. This is why United Way World Wide and our local United Way are calling every person in our community to be a part of the change. Our goal is to recruit a million mentors. Think of how many kids’ lives, like Jessica’s, could be shaped by your time. I often think of who Jessica will be one day: someone that travels to Africa, someone that knows the importance of giving back to people, someone who understands how beautiful and valuable she is. As much as I’d say I signed up to be a mentor for selfless reasons, I experience more happiness than I could have ever dreamed of in being a part of this young girl’s life and thinking of the person she will become. Our nation is fortunate to have some of the best teachers and most sophisticated schools in the world, but the opportunities at our top schools are not available to students everywhere. One of every four American kids doesn’t graduate from high school. It’s up to each of us to do our part to reverse this trend and alter the trajectory of our country. United Way launched an ambitious goal to recruit one million volunteer readers, tutors and mentors, because we believe that every kid deserves to graduate on time with a great education. We invite you to be part of the change. If you’re interested in joining the movement and becoming a mentor, please visit http://liveunited.org/take-action/volunteer to find mentoring opportunities in your area. Photo Credit: Tomorrow Never Knows Posted on behalf of Jennifer Near, Fundraising Manager, Corporate Business at United Way DuPage/West Cook.
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