23, No. 12, Jan. 22, 2004
Mentoring offers positive relationships
for area youth
Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
by Bill Wiegand
Art Spomer, professor of plant physiology, has been
a mentor for five years in the C-U One-to_One program,
based in the Champaign and Urbana schools.
Five years ago,
it might have seemed like an unlikely match: Miles, a seventh-grade
boy whose unruly behavior was landing him in trouble with school officials
and other authorities, and Art Spomer, a recently widowed UI professor
of plant physiology who liked to sculpt.
The two came together when Spomer volunteered as a mentor in C-U One-to-One,
a school-based mentoring program sponsored by the Champaign and Urbana
public schools. The program pairs adult volunteers with at-risk kids
who are referred to the program by teachers or counselors because of
such problems as academic underachievement, absenteeism or poor peer
relations. Mentors, who are screened and trained when they begin the
program, meet with their students for one hour a week during the school
day so they can pursue activities they select on school grounds.
C-U One-to-One began in 1994 with only a handful of mentors and grew
to more than 210 mentoring pairs by spring 2002.
Spomer said that his and Miles’ relationship developed slowly,
but as they became more comfortable with one another they found common
ground. Like Miles, Spomer had been a rambunctious youth.
“I was in trouble a lot in school when I was his age,” Spomer
recalled. “The neighborhood that I grew up in was a bad neighborhood.
I was never sick but I was out of school a lot because they sent me
home. But I always got in more trouble at home when I had misbehaved
Spomer and Miles also share an interest in art, and Spomer began taking
some clay, wax or stone along on his weekly visits so they could mold
or carve as they huddled together in alcoves at the school and talked.
“The main thing is to listen,” Spomer said. “I make
And while Spomer takes no credit for the changes in Miles, now a sophomore,
he said the boy’s outlook has changed dramatically. Miles is more
optimistic and has begun visualizing his future, expressing interest
in attending college or trade school to become an auto mechanics teacher.
About half of America’s youth – 176 million young people
– want or need adult mentors to ensure their success in life,
according to the Harvard Mentoring Project.
An 18-month study of 1,000 youth on the waiting list of Big Brothers
Big Sisters of America found that those who received mentors were 46
percent less likely to consume illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely
to take up alcohol, 53 percent less likely to miss school and 33 percent
less likely to engage in school violence.
The study also revealed that those who were mentored felt more competent
academically, reported more positive relationships with parents and
peers and had better attitudes toward school, their families and their
Harriet Kersh, a supervisor in the Child Development Lab, has witnessed
firsthand the positive impact that just one hour a week of mentoring
can have on children, including one of her own three daughters. Kersh
decided to become a mentor three years ago when, as an employee in the
public schools, she helped coordinate the mentoring program at Prairie
“The first girl I had, we were so close, and she made so many
gains. Her grades were better. She was happier because she had someone
to talk to.” Kersh said. “It was really hard when she moved
Kersh is currently mentoring Jory, a sixth-grader at Urbana Middle School.
Kersh had come to know Jory through Kersh’s previous job.
Like other children in the C-U One to One program, Jory was not a ‘problem
child.’ Rather, she was one of those children who sometimes fall
through the cracks because neither their behavior nor their grades warrant
From her perspectives as parent, mentor and former program coordinator,
Kersh has seen children become remotivated academically and become eager
to get to school because they treasure the time they spend with their
mentors, just talking, playing games or doing homework.
Students also develop a sense of pride because they see that somebody
else besides their parents cares about them, Kersh said.
Likewise, the adult volunteers report that the hour they spend with
their proteges every week boosts their morale and their energy so they
return to work feeling refreshed.
“I also gain a young friend,” Kersh said. “I feel
like I’m making a difference. Knowing that I’m making an
impact on a child’s life, that’s important to me.”
C-U One-to-One asks adult volunteers to make at least a one-year, once-a-week
commitment to those they are mentoring, who are typically seventh-graders
when they enter the program. Ideally, the mentors and their students
will sustain their relationship through to the student’s high-school
graduation, said Barbara Linder, Urbana Middle School’s community
connections coordinator and the ‘matchmaker’ who pairs up
volunteers and students.
Kersh cautioned volunteers not to take their responsibilities lightly
because she remembers what it was like to console teary-eyed students
whose mentors failed to honor their commitments.
“People should not do it unless they’re serious about it
because that can really hurt a child,” Kersh said. “Kids
really look forward to your coming in and spending time with them, even
if they don’t say it right away. It really hurts them if the mentors
aren’t serious about it and don’t show up every week for
the whole year.”
January is National Mentoring Month
One-to-One Mentor Training
6:30-8:30 p.m. Jan. 26
Champaign Unit 4
Family Information Center
405 E. Clark St., Champaign
6:30 – 8:30 p.m. Feb. 3
Urbana Middle School
1201 S. Vine St., Urbana
To register for one of the above training sessions, contact Barbara
As with other approved public service activities, university employees
participating in formally organized mentoring activities in local elementary
and secondary schools may be released from work, operations permitting,
without loss of pay, subject to prior approval from their supervisors.
Such commitments would generally not exceed one hour per week.