Middle-school mentors Eric 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 school.
Photo by Bill Wiegand
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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 Mentoring Program.
Merle, a professor of veterinary clinical medicine, is one of several university faculty and staff members who mentor schoolchildren through the program.
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 poor self-esteem.
"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 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 become available.
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 tutoring.
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 school."
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 age."
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 anymore."
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 helps."
Coreyawn’s teachers have noticed that he is following instructions better, completing his assignments and being less of a class clown, Cook said.
"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 office.
"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.
Interested 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.
Youth with mentors:
46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs
27% less likely to begin using alcohol
53% less likely to skip school
33% less likely to engage in violence
Source: The Harvard Mentoring Project
Youth 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.
Source: The Harvard Mentoring Project
Learn more about the benefits of mentoring at: