Students’ Paths to Success Aided by Dedicated Mentors

The academic and career trajectory of young adults growing up in the Chicago region often hinges on the support systems they can rely on. Some are born into strong, supportive networks of family and friends, while others must cultivate their own, creating bonds that enhance their life journey.

So was the case for Jessica, a student from North Lawndale.

High school was a troubling time for Jessica, as she often had conflict with her peers and struggled academically. Those challenges left her feeling like she wasn’t cut out for high school and that graduation, inevitably, wasn’t in the cards. That’s until she was connected to the Stay In School Initiative through the youth agency Young Men’s Education Network (YMEN).

The Stay In School Initiative – a partnership between United Way of Metro Chicago, Exelon and ComEd – works with six community agencies and their partner high schools to offer a holistic range of programs and services to students and their families. The programs include tutoring, social service referrals, leadership and social engagement training, and parent involvement classes. The heart of the program is a mentoring component, in which hundreds of Exelon and ComEd employees partner with students to offer academic support and guidance, as well as to host monthly workshop series for skill-building.

Having the opportunity to meet professionals who can provide career and social guidance is invaluable for the students. The mentor-mentee relationship can inspire youth to consider their career paths at an early age and provide them with the skill set and goals needed to achieve their dreams.

For September McDonald, an SIS student and United Way of Metro Chicago summer intern, the program also enabled to her learn more about herself and her place in the world. 

“[The Stay In School program] opened my eyes to another world,” September said. “It’s making me an even more well-rounded person…someone who is also culturally, socially and politically aware of what’s going on in my surroundings.”

Closing an education gap 

When the SIS program began seven years ago, United Way, with the help of our corporate partners, aimed to address a gap in youth education and resolve chronic truancy and high dropout rates. Since, the program has had a positive impact on thousands of students, including more than 1,800 youth who participated during the 2017-18 school year.

Of the 536 students who most actively participated in SIS this past year , nearly 85 percent achieved satisfactory school attendance, and more than 88 percent of students achieved satisfactory grade performance. In addition, all of the 2018 Stay In School seniors graduated from high school.

Jessica was among them. Her participation in SIS allowed her to write a different life story than the one that was unfolding. Her SIS mentors and the staff of YMEN helped Jessica make a much-needed transition to a new high school that partners with the youth agency to offer additional life supports.

There, she was able to overcome the challenges present at her previous school. She also developed leadership skills that she quickly put to the test by assembling and leading a dance team at her new school. “Her grades dramatically improved this year from C-D level grades at Wells School to getting As and Bs here [during] senior year,” said Will Chatman, program manager of YMEN. 

Most importantly, her newfound success enabled her to graduate in June. Now, she’s headed off to City Colleges of Chicago to continue her education. “In grades, school attendance, and school leadership, Jessica was a fantastic example of the impact created with the additional support and engagement through the United Way, Exelon, ComEd and YMEN collaboration,” YMEN leaders shared.

With a new school year underway, a new cohort of students will soon follow in Jessica’s footsteps. Though their path is their own to forge, the mentorship provided through the Stay In School Initiative will equip the students with the skills and confidence needed to thrive, and that will make all the difference.

United Way Corporate Partners Give Back in Big Ways

It’s no secret that we have great partners at United Way of Metro Chicago. We’re able to join forces with some of the best, brightest and most benevolent business leaders across the region in our fight for stronger communities. While there are endless ways that our corporate partners invest in the neighborhoods we serve, we wanted to highlight a few that are making significant strides toward improving outcomes in strategic and creative ways.

 

BMO Harris Bank
Investing in communities and helping others is in the DNA of BMO Harris Bank, as reflected by their slogan – “We’re here to help.” As a longstanding partner of United Way, BMO has gone above and beyond to contribute to thriving communities across the Chicago region. In 2013, BMO Harris Bank’s cornerstone investment was crucial to the launch of the Neighborhood Network Initiative. Since then, they have continued to support this community-based work, committing to a total investment of $3 million over 8 years, which has enabled the expansion of our work within the 10 neighborhoods we serve.

 

Wells Fargo
Wells Fargo has been a champion of communities in need and a dedicated partner of United Way for years. In 2016, they decided to focus their efforts to strategically invest in bringing critical resources to one neighborhood. Their three-year financial commitment to the Austin Neighborhood Network has helped to increase access to quality early childhood learning opportunities for families in need and enhance skills development and job referral programs within the neighborhood. This focused approach is also reflected in their volunteerism, with Wells Fargo team members spending the majority of their volunteer hours in the Austin community.

 

Target
Our partners at Target have fully “bought in” to the work of United Way. One of their greatest areas of impact has been the $100,000 back-to-school shopping sprees. This annual event provides 100 students in each of our 10 Neighborhood Networks with a $100 gift card to spend on the supplies they need for the new school year. United Way works with the lead agency in each Neighborhood Network to identify the students in the greatest need, then Target organizes a shopping spree complete with healthy foods and drinks, free transportation, and a fun-filled day for the entire family. Local politicians, school leaders and agency partners all came out for last year’s shopping spree, truly making this a community-wide event.

 

Exelon
A leading advocate of our work in education, Exelon partnered with United Way of Metro Chicago to create the Stay in School Initiative (SIS). This program selects students in 9th – 12th grade from some of the most underserved communities in our region and provides them with the tools and mentorship they need for high school graduation and college/career readiness. A key element of the Stay in School Initiative is the Saturday mentoring workshops, which are lead by Exelon employees and help students learn basic skills such as resume writing, business basics, keys to networking and the dos and don’t of interviewing. Since 2005, the Stay in School Initiative has served an average of 2,250 students per year.

 

UPS
UPS employees don’t stop at financial and time contributions – they are true hand-raisers who are quick to address immediate community needs. They have taken their role in the community a step further by connecting individuals in need of jobs to open positions within their eight regional facilities. Working directly with United Way of Metro Chicago’s Career Pathways funded agencies, UPS’s HR team has placed prescreened candidates in open roles with a 100% success rate.

 

These are just a few of the ways our corporate partners are making an impact. There are countless others who are dedicated to the work of United Way and our agency partners and are instrumental in the work we do. If your organization is interested in partnering with United Way, contact Risa Davis at risa.davis@uw-mc.org.

 

YLS Member Spotlight: Zach Walters

Why did you join YLS, and what is your current role? I joined YLS to become more active in my community, through volunteering and helping those in need. I felt that it was important to have a balance in my life of helping myself succeed, and helping others succeed. I work to get more people involved in YLS, and those currently involved, more active within YLS. What is your favorite experience of being involved with United Way? My favorite experience working with the United Way was partnering with the YMCA in Pilsen. The kids are in a pretty rough area, and this was a refuge where they could play soccer and other sports and have a lot of fun. It was a very rewarding experience because the kids look up to you, and you have a very real effect on them. What got you interested and involved with the United Way? My involvement with United Way started young; I just didn’t realize it at the time. My father was very judicious about how he donated his money, making sure it was spent in an efficient and principled manner.   Every year, the United Way was his choice of non-profits. Once I graduated college and began working, I wanted to contribute to the community. After a few searches, I came upon the United Way Young Leaders Society. I went to one event, loved the people, the atmosphere and here I am. What are your favorite things about YLS/UW involvement? My favorite things about the United Way and YLS are the great people you get to be around and work with on a daily basis–and the impact that you can have–merely by volunteering your time. What would you say to someone interested in joining YLS? I would say absolutely try it. It is a great way to become more involved in your community and you meet a lot of great people. And it’s a lot of fun! Zach Walters, an investment associate at RBC Wealth Management, first learned about United Way from his father. Apparently, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Walters, the vice chair of the YLS Member Development Committee, is excited about the way YLS can impact the community in Chicago. He is busy helping to shape the next YLS 101 event, a free evening on Oct. 4 to connect with young professionals and learn about United Way and YLS.

Q & A with YLS Executive Chair, Angela Wells

The new YLS Chair works in the Government Affairs and Community Investment Department for Comcast, enjoys the platform YLS gives young professionals to take a leading role in the community and is inspired by her fellow members. Oh, and her all-time favorite movie is the original Karate Kid. For the A to Z on Angela Wells, read on. What are your major goals for YLS this year? I’d love to see YLS continue to flourish. My goal is to inspire more young professionals to instill a lifelong commitment to the community. More specifically, we want to grow our membership, focus on United Way initiatives such as education, and add member value by creating new programming including leadership development and several networking and volunteer events throughout the year. Why is YLS a good group for young professionals to become involved in? YLS is a dynamic group with meaningful events that allow young professionals to take a leading role in impacting their community. What do you do for your job at Comcast? At Comcast I work in our Government Affairs and Community Investment department where I focus on local community and government affairs initiatives. Some of these include our Comcast United Way Campaign, our national day of service – Comcast Cares Day and promoting our Comcast Leaders and Achievers scholarship program. A current initiative I’m excited to promote in the community is Internet Essentials from Comcast, a new program that will give students who qualify for the federal free lunch program access to low-cost Internet and computers. It’s wonderful to be involved with the launch of this program in an effort to close the digital divide. I love the fast-paced environment of the media industry and being involved in the community through my role at Comcast. In addition to YLS, I’m also a part of the City Year Associate Board, Women in Cable Telecommunications and the Cornell Alumni Association of Chicago. How did you originally get involved with YLS? I first discovered United Way when I lived in Houston and led the Comcast United Way Employee Campaign. From there, I became active with the Young Leaders group as I was inspired by the work of United Way and I was also looking to meet like-minded young professionals. When I moved to Chicago, I wanted to become more familiar with the community and I quickly discovered YLS. My first YLS event in Chicago was a holiday celebration where I had the opportunity to meet several committee members who encouraged me to become more involved. What was your best YLS experience? The best experience has been meeting people who I now can call close friends and see regularly in YLS and outside of YLS. Without my involvement with YLS I would never have had the chance to meet so many extraordinary and dedicated young professionals. There are so many worthy nonprofits. What is it about YLS that made you decide to take on a leadership role? I learned a great deal about the work of United Way and its impact in the community through leading my company campaign. Once I understood the impact and the critical focus on Heath, Education and Income – I knew it would be an organization I would be involved with for years to come. I wanted to take on a leadership role to inspire others and to become an ambassador for United Way. In YLS, I truly believe there is a unique opportunity to network, become educated about issues facing the community and volunteer alongside like-minded professionals. Why do you continue to stay involved and how? I continue to stay involved with YLS because I truly care about the work United Way is doing and I enjoy the company of all the YLSers who share the same drive. It’s always great to meet with such inspiring and personable members in the group and there are always new people to meet! Now onto some fun questions! Best thing about Chicago The many festivals, farmers markets and amazing food. Worst thing about Chicago Traffic. When I have free time, you will find me where in Chicago? In hot yoga classes, walking around Lakeview, at various community events through my involvement with Comcast, at local sports bars rooting for Cornell and Penn State… Favorite places to eat Chicago Diner, Whole Foods and Mercadito Favorite television show Modern Family and Good Morning America Favorite movie Karate Kid (1984) Favorite musician George Strait What songs are always on your iPod? I’m a little old fashioned and do not own an iPod. I still listen mostly to the radio! I use Pandora on my home and work computers and love country music, classic rock, jazz standards – some of my favorites range from Edith Piaf, Randy Rogers Band, Jo Stafford, Julieta Venegas to Cage the Elephant. Favorite vacation spot Houston to visit family and friends Favorite quote “…And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter and sharing of pleasures. For in the dew of the little things the heart finds it morning and is refreshed…” from the Prophet (on friendship) by Kahlil Gibran