22, No. 12, Jan. 23, 2003
by Bill Wiegand
Cook (left), a UI police officer, and Christine Merle, professor
of veterinary clinical medicine, are mentors to students
at Urbana Middle School. Mentors are encouraged to make
a long-term commitment to those they are mentoring, ideally
staying with them until the students graduate from high
Adults and students reap benefits
of long-term relationship
Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
(217) 244-1072; firstname.lastname@example.org
In the perilous world of adolescents, standing head and shoulders above
the rest can feel more like a gypsy curse than the result of genetics.
For 14-year-old Tabitha, a student at Urbana Middle School, her classmates’
teasing about her height was causing her self-esteem and grades to plummet
until she met Christine Merle, her mentor in the Champaign-Urbana One-to-One
Merle, a professor of veterinary clinical medicine, is one of several
university faculty and staff members who mentor schoolchildren through
Begun in 1994, the
program matches adult volunteers with youth in the Champaign-Urbana
schools. Teachers and counselors recommend students for the program
who may be underachieving academically, have poor attendance or exhibit
"We’re looking for average kids who for some reason aren’t
being successful, the ones that I see as the ‘falling-through-the-cracks
kids,’ " said Terry Morgan, eighth-grade guidance counselor
at Urbana Middle School. "Maybe it’s the quiet kid who’s
sitting there not asking a lot of questions, who is just missing something
and needs a little extra push."
The Harvard Mentoring Project
with mentors …
also feel increased competence about their school work; have positive
relationships with others; and have better attitudes toward their
families, their schools and their futures.
The Harvard Mentoring Project
about the benefits of mentoring at:
The majority of
children enter the program as sixth-graders, although some seventh-
and eighth-graders are recruited as well.
Approximately 110 children in the Urbana schools and 40 in Champaign
schools currently have mentors. Additional children have been referred
to the program but are relegated to a waiting list until more mentors
Mentors are encouraged to make a long-term commitment to their mentees,
ideally staying with them until the student graduates high school.
The students meet with their mentors for an hour each week during school
hours and engage in activities of their choice, perhaps playing games,
reading together, working out in the gym or talking. Although they may
choose to work on classroom assignments, the mentors’ primary
function is to provide adult companionship and emotional support, not
For many children, their mentors’ visits are the highlights of
their school weeks.
"It’s a major influence for some of these kids," Morgan
said. "I think for some students, it’s what keeps them in
Eric Cook, a university police officer, said he’s "hooked"
on mentoring because he has seen how positive relationships with adults
help deter delinquency and other social problems in the community.
"As a police
officer, I’ve seen where just giving a kid a little bit of encouragement
helps them see how they can better themselves," Cook said.
Barbara Linder, the program coordinator, and the guidance counselors
try to pair up adults and children who share common interests. Merle
seemed to be an ideal match for Tabitha.
"One of the things Tabitha and I had in common is that we’re
both very tall," Merle said. "She’s almost as tall as
I am, and I’m about six feet. So I knew what it was like at her
Tabitha, who loves animals, also aspires to be a veterinarian someday.
She especially enjoyed a job-shadowing day where she came to campus,
monitored a class Merle taught and met Merle’s coworkers in the
College of Veterinary Medicine.
Since entering the mentoring program, Tabitha’s grades have improved,
and so have her self-esteem, her relationships with her peers and her
parents, and her attitude toward school.
"I’m getting As and A-pluses right now. I wasn’t doing
too well before," Tabitha said. "Now I go to my classes and
I have fun and I learn. I don’t care what people say about me
For the past year, Cook has been mentoring Coreyawn, 12, an Urbana Middle
School student whom Cook describes as "kind of a prankster."
Although it took awhile for the two to bond, Cook has become an integral
figure in the boy’s life. Coreyawn’s teachers and guardian
call upon Cook when Coreyawn has academic difficulties or social problems,
such as being bullied by other students on the bus.
"Sometimes kids can’t tell their parents or other people
who are directly responsible about some
of the things that are going on in their lives," Cook said. "I
think he’s confided in me some of the things that might interfere
with him learning in school. Having that objective person as a confidant
Coreyawn’s teachers have noticed that he is following instructions
better, completing his assignments and being less of a class clown,
"If he makes a mistake, he acknowledges what it is and through
talking he says what he feels will help correct the mistake. So he’s
owning up to his own responsibility a little more," Cook said.
Watching Coreyawn undergo positive changes has been a rewarding experience
for Cook, who shared Coreyawn’s excitement when he scored well
on a test and when he earned a spot on the basketball team.
"The responses of mentors almost wholeheartedly is that they feel
that they get more than they give," Linder said. "The mentors
say that they go back to work refreshed and energized. They also benefit
from the relationship of having someone that looks forward to seeing
them. It’s a real boost when you walk into a room and a kid’s
face lights up."
Merle said Tabitha "grounds" her and that the hour they share
each week helps her combat workday stress by helping her focus on the
positive aspects of life such as family and friends.
In return, Tabitha expresses her affection and appreciation by crafting
small gifts for Merle: drawings, a bookmark, decorations for Merle’s
"In the note she sent with her Christmas card, Tabitha said she
hoped that we would always stay friends, even after high school,"
Merle said. "She’s not giving me much of a choice, and that’s
fine with me.
in becoming a mentor?
To become a mentor, request an application from Barbara Linder, the
program coordinator, 337-0853 or 367-3156, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
A training session for new mentors is scheduled for Feb. 6, and the
goal is to have 25 new mentors ready for placement in the Champaign-Urbana
elementary and middle schools.
Volunteers must participate in an interview/screening session, provide
personal references and agree to a criminal background check. Mentors
attend an initial two-hour training session and agree to attend other
training sessions, usually brown bag lunches and breakfasts, as needed.
Mentors also receive a 45-minute orientation to the school immediately
prior to their first visit with their student.
University employees may use an hour of release time for community service
activities like mentoring.