Friday, March 27, 2009

Casa Central

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of not visiting one but TWO different programs. In the morning I visited Girls on the Run, which has its headquarters just north of us on Dayton and Halsted and in the afternoon I visited Casa Central, which is located in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Incidentally, both of these programs are located in the same zip code as us (as is 826 CHI and Erie Neighborhood House) and I've been astounded by how diverse the zip code is.

Casa Central is actually the largest social service organisation in the Midwest that serves the Latino community. Its services include homework help for grades k-12, a Head Start program for pre-k, housing for the homeless, programs for senior citizens, a teen pregnancy prevention program, and much more. Yesterday afternoon, when I visited, they were hosting an event, co-sponsored by ComEd, for people who are on the verge of getting their electricity shut off to help them figure out ways to pay for their electricity. I was also happy to see news vans outside, which shows that good information about Casa Central is getting out into the news media.

The main program that I was concerned with was their Wednesday night tutoring program for high schoolers, where students meet one-on-one with tutors and mentors. While the program is small right now, Casa Central is looking to possibly expand this program.

In addition to homework help, Casa Central also offers various art, drama, music and drumming, technology and many more clubs to keep students engaged and help them explore various creative outlets. They readily use volunteers from all over the city, but have especially taken advantage of college students from such places as UIC, De Paul, Dominican, and Moody Bible College to help their students grow and learn.

As with all the organizations I visit and write about, I'm more than happy to promote any events and/or fundraisers. On April 26th, which is a Sunday, Telemundo will have a telethon for Casa Central. Tune in and find out how you can help out an outstanding social service agency!

I want to thank Cheryl Debusemann-Serra for sitting down with me and explaining to me all the wonderful things Casa Central does to help their community.

Girls on the Run

In my continued quest to visit all of the programs listed in the Tutor/Mentor Connection Program Locator, I'm especially interested in those programs that come up with unique ways to fulfill the task of tutoring and/or mentoring a child. I was quite impressed with 826 CHI's novel use (pun not intended) of encouraging kids to express themselves through writing as a compliment to their tutoring. I was also quite impressed with Girls on the Run, which is a program where girls in 3rd-8th grade have the opportunity to train for a 5k and learn about various life lessons such as cultivating a healthy body image, and staying true to yourself.

Girls on the Run was founded in 1996 in North Carolina and has since expanded to other cities. Girls on the Run has sites in Cook, Lake, DuPage, Kane, Will, and Kendall counties and runs the gamut of all income brackets. All of the programs are run through the school sites and many of the volunteers are parents, teachers, or administrators. The groups meet once a week and in addition to training for the 5k, they have a weekly theme that touches on important life lessons. The program runs for 12 weeks and culminates in a 5k. There are two programs, one in the fall and one in the spring and girls can participate as many times as they want.

The next Girls on the Run 5k will be Saturday June 6th at Montrose Harbor. Men and women are both welcome to run with the girls and their mentors. Girls on the Run is also having a fundraiser, an Associate Board Bags Tournament, at Joe's Bar on Weed St. on Thursday April 16th. Check out the Girls on the Run website to find out more.

And thanks to Charlotte Schultz for meeting with me yesterday morning and explaining to me all the great things that Girls on the Run does to help girl grow both athletically and emotionally.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Erie Neighborhood House

Last night I visited one of the closest programs to us proximity-wise, Erie Neighborhood House. Erie Neighborhood House has four locations throughout the city, but their site at 1347 W. Erie, where their tutoring and mentoring program, TEAM (Tutoring to Educate for Aims and Motivation) is hosted, is its original site. In fact, Erie Neighborhood House has been serving a primarily Latino-based community for 25 years.

Erie Neighborhood House offers many services outside of tutoring and mentoring. These include ESL classes, aide for getting citizenship, a Head Start Program for young children, a language exchange where English and Spanish speakers meet and improve their language skills, technology classes, a food pantry, and much more. Many of the students in the TEAM program, started out in the Head Start program and continued on through high school, which is a wonderful example of a program serving people of all ages in a community.

The TEAM program is a part of the larger Youth Options Unlimited or YOU program. The YOU program includes a drop-in center with homework help that runs Monday through Thursday after school, a service-learning component where students do community service such as picking up trash in their neighborhood. Students also have access to technology classes in the computer labs, sports activities in the gym, and art and writing classes where they can express their creativity.

Every Monday and Wednesday is the TEAM program. 7th-9th meet with their tutor/mentors on Mondays and 10th-12th graders meet with their tutors on Wednesdays. Students are matched up one-on-one with tutor/mentors, who must give a commitment of at least a year. The students who are in advanced math or science are matched up with volunteers who come from an engineering firm in Skokie, to help these kids especially. During the tutoring sessions, students get help with their homework, but can also use the computer labs to research colleges and scholarship opportunities.

One of the issues that every tutoring and mentoring program has is keeping in touch with the alumni. Erie Neighborhood House has volunteers who specifically in charge of keeping in touch with alumni - often over the phone or internet. The only stipulation is that these volunteers and alumni meet face-to-face at least twice a year. This is not only a great way for Erie Neighborhood House to keep track of the students who have graduated, but also gives the students an adult resource to help guide them through the post-high school years.

I had a great time at Erie Neighborhood House and thoroughly enjoyed meeting several of the students and their tutor/mentors. Special thanks to Rebecca Estrada and Joshua Fulcher for hosting me and answering all of my questions!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

826 CHI

In my quest to visit all of the tutoring and mentoring programs in the Tutor/Mentor Connection Program Locator, it's always nice to see what other programs there are in the neighborhood. This week, I'm exclusively visiting programs in our zip code (now 60642, formally 60622). Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of visiting 826 CHI, a truly unique and wonderful tutoring program with a focus on writing.

826Chi is one of six sites throughout the country where students learn about the joys of writing, along with getting homework help. The original site was in San Francisco/Valencia, California, and was founded by Dave Eggers, the renowned author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What is the What. At the original site, the zoning required there be a store and Mr. Eggers started a pirate store as a joke. Quickly, he realized that the store was a wonderful reason for people to come in and find out more about the tutoring program at the site. It also removed the stigma that some students have about going to a tutoring program. After 826 Valencia expanded to New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Chicago, the idea of the store was repeated. If you're walking down Milwaukee Avenue in the Wicker Park/Ukrainian Village Neighborhood in Chicago Chicago, be sure to head into the Boring Store, and you will not only be able to buy supplies to become a secret agent, but also books published by 826 CHI, with writings by the students they work with.

826 CHI has several different components to their curriculum. The tutoring component happens Monday through Thursday evenings from 3:00pm to 5:30pm, where students come in to get help with thei homework. Many students come all four evenings, but most tutors only come one day a week. Many of the tutors are writers themselves and usually have more flexible hours, allowing them to come in during the afterschool hours. The one stipulation is that before they start on their homework, they have to do 10-15 minutes of writing about anything they want. This helps them focus on their homework and helps them develop their writing skills.

After 5:30, there are writing workshops that the students can sign up for. The workshops can be about anything that can relate to writing. Usually the topics are ideas of the tutors. So for example, last night a group of students went to an art gallery and wrote about the artwork that they saw. Other workshops have included writing about knitting, writing about a certain type of music, and much more.

826 CHI also teams up with schools around the city and has them come to the center to learn about creative writing. Volunteers come to help host the students and students will complete a book written by them at the end. 826 CHI also has had a partnership with Schiller School, in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, where they come in every week and do a writing workshop there.

I'm always more than happy promote upcoming fundraisers that programs are hosting. 826 CHI is hosting a "prom" with the theme "Robot Armageddon." The attire will be thrift-store (think 80's prom dresses and tuxes) or robot. It's going to be Saturday April 25th at 8pm at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse. Tickets are $30 for admission, food, and beverages. To find out more visit the 826 CHI website.

Also, special thanks to Mara O'Brien for explaining to me the ins and outs of the program, and Patrick Shaffner for telling me more about the Boring Store and Robot Armageddon prom!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Upcoming Spring Events!

Hello Everybody! Happy First Day of Spring! With the winding down of the school year and the beginning of nice weather, Cabrini Connections, Tutor/Mentor Connection has some exciting events coming up!

One of my favorite parts of working at Cabrini Connections, Tutor/Mentor Connection is having the privilege of supervising the art club on Monday nights. Jackie, Nicole, Danielle, and the other volunteers do an amazing job exposing different styles of art to the kids. Last year they did this mural that I think is absolutely breathtaking:

This year they did another mural that I think is equally incredible. Anyway, like last year, the art club will have an art show on Saturday April 4th, from 5-10pm at the Palette and Chisel, 1012 N. Dearborn. Last year's art show was a lot of fun and I encourage everybody to come out, be impressed by the amazing talent of our kids, and even bid on some of the artwork. Check out how amazing the art show looked last year:

Also, the May Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference is going to be amazing this year! It's going to be Thursday and Friday May 28th and 29th at Northwestern University School of Law, 375 E. Chicago Ave. We already have some amazing speakers lined up, such as Dan Guerin from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University talking about how business schools and non-profits can work together, Susie Quern Pratt and Jenny Ellis Richards, who are evaluation professionals, speaking about Evaluation Strategies, and Bart Phillips, the founder and CEO of Community Building Tutors talking about how he went from working in the for-profit sector to the non-profit sector. Registration has already begun, so you should sign up now! Also, we are still filling up slots for workshops. So, if you're interested in presenting a workshop, sign up here.

I hope to see everybody at the Art Show in April and at the Conference in May!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Oprah's Angel Network Article

In 2008, Cabrini Connections, Tutor/Mentor Connection received a generous grant from Oprah's Angel Network. This week, we are featured in an article on their website. Hopefully people from all over the world will read this article and get inspired to become a volunteer tutor/mentor or donate to a tutoring and mentoring organization such as ours or any other.

Blessed Sacrament Youth Center

In my quest to visit all of the tutoring and mentoring programs in our Tutor/Mentor Connection Program Locator, I am trying to make a special effort to reach out to programs on the south, west, and southwest sides where there are the highest rates of poverty, but also the lowest number of tutoring and mentoring programs. Many of these programs often are underfunded, understaffed, and trying to serve a need that is just too great for their resources. We are also much less familiar with many of these programs because they simply do not have the time or the capacity to fill out the Tutor/Mentor Connection Program Survey. Finally, many of these programs only last for a couple of years because despite all the good intentions of the founders to help kids succeed, they simply don't have the support and funding like many programs do in areas closer to the Loop. My fear is that as the economy gets worse, while even well-funded, well-managed, more visible programs are going to struggle, the programs in areas with higher poverty are simply going to fold. As a result, there will be that many more students out on the streets with no place to go, and the tragic results of that fact - joining gangs, selling and buying drugs, getting pregnant, dropping out of school will only increase.

That is why we were thrilled to get in contact with Blessed Sacrament Youth Center, which is located in North Lawndale. Blessed Sacrament Youth Center is located on the Corner of Cermak and Central Park, right on the border between the predominantly African-American North Lawndale neighborhood and the predominantly Latino Little Village Neighborhood. Blessed Sacrament has been around for 22 years, and originally was in a two flat. However, with the recent sale of the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Blessed Sacrament now has the entire use of the church to conduct its afterschool program. An especially cool part of the transformation from church to youth program is how the sanctuary has been transformed into a basketball court, where the kids can have a safe place to play after school.

Blessed Sacrament's program, which starts at 3pm Monday through Thursday, begins with supervised homework help. After finishing their homework, students do a form of community service, either cleaning up the church, or, if the weather is nice, to pick up trash in the surrounding neighborhood. This not only instills a sense of pride in the students for the learning center and neighborhood, but also shows an example to the surrounding community. Apparently, after the kids started picking up trash around the neighborhood, something that had never been done before, other neighborhood residents started picking up trash as well.

One thing that greatly draws from the Midtown Boys Program model is the idea of the character talk. After the students perform community service, they are given a talk on a particular virture such as cheerfulness or tenacity. The after-school program then finishes off with a sports activity such as basketball or jump rope.

Recruiting students doesn't seem to be a problem for Blessed Sacrament, although it was was mentioned that they would like to see more students from the Little Village neighborhood come to the program since there are so many more young people in that neighborhood than in North Lawndale. Recruiting volunteers is a problem, however. North Lawndale seems to have a bad reputation amongst potential volunteers, and despite being one block from the Central Park Pink Line Stop and just blocks from the Eisenhower Expressway, many volunteers have expressed concern about their safety in coming to volunteer at Blessed Sacrament. Their is a college student who comes to work specifically with the girls in the program, but Blessed Sacrament has found another solution to the issue of volunteers coming to the youth center.

Every Saturday, twelve students are bussed to St. Michael's Church in Old Town to meet with one-on-one volunteer tutor-mentors in their Summit Tutoring Program. They would like to expand the program, and also are welcome to having volunteers come to the center in North Lawndale to supervise the after-school program. Tutor/Mentor Connection is willing to help in any way to make this possible.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gads Hill Center

Last Thursday, Chris Warren and I visited Gads Hill Center in the Pilsen Neighborhood. Gads Hill has three wonderful programs serving students from kindergarten to college. It's this continuous commitment to helping youth throughout their childhoods that makes Gads Hill such a great example to other programs.

For elementary-school aged students, there's Club Learn, which is an after-school program where students can come in for homework help, or just have a safe place to go after school. The kids do sports, learn about computers and technology, and learn about healthy choices such as not doing drugs and eating well.

Teen Connection starts when students are in the 7th grade and is a college-preparation program. The tutors are graduate students from local universities such as Loyola and the University of Chicago. Students are given a specific schedule for them to follow, based on their age. Students get help with their homework, but also attend workshops about getting into colleges, and take test prep classes. There are scheduled college visits and financial aid and college admissions counseling since many of the students will be the first ones in the family to attend college. To keep the parents on the same page, there are also monthly parent meetings for parents to meet with volunteers and staff members.

The newest program at Gads Hill Center is the New Horizons program. New Horizons is the one-on-one tutoring and mentoring program, where at-risk students from Orozco Middle School are paired one-on-one with a tutor/mentor. The program is in its infancy, having just started in January, but looks forward to helping many students stay on track to graduating from high school and going to college, rather than dropping out and joining gangs or getting into drugs.

Gads Hill offers many great programs, but sees the endless need that there is in its neighborhood for its services. Johnny Tirado, the coordinator of the Teen Connection Program mentioned the need of a program for students needing extra help before going to high school, who may not fit the profile of the high-achieving Teen Connection student preparing for high school. He feels that a middle-school program for those needing that extra boost in their academics before going to high school.

Chris and I had a great time at Gads Hill Center, and look forwarding to helping them in any way possible in the future. Thanks to Johnny Tirado of Teen Connection, Xavier Salvado of New Horizons, and Cecelia of Club Learn for taking the time out of their busy schedules and sitting down with Chris and me and helping us really understand what makes Gads Hill such a great tutoring and mentoring program.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Indo-American Center

Yesterday, Chris Warren and two young women from Estonia, who are looking to start a tutoring and mentoring program back in Tallinn Estonia, Maris and Sirla, trekked up to West Devon Street to visit the Indo-American Center.

It's always exciting finding out about tutoring and mentoring programs that have not been previously listed. That's why I was so happy when Chris told met hat his friend, Ritwik Banerji, is the Youth Program Director at the Indo-American Center. Right now, the youth program just has after -school tutoring, run by work-study students from Loyola University. However, Ritwik has great plans for the Youth Program. While the after-school tutoring program is just for kindergarten through 8th graders, Ritwik sees the great need for high school students to have a safe place to go as well. On Thursday nights, he oversees a youth development/organizing group of high schoolers who discuss issues in their community and what they can do about them. He also leads a hip-hop club and encourages the students to turn the music they love into something that can express a positive message.

Ritwik is also looking into starting a mentoring program. Right now he's looking into finding more volunteers so students can have the one-on-one attention of a tutor/mentor like we have here at Cabrini Connections. We are here to help Ritwik and the Indo-American Center in every way to make that possible.

Thank you Ritwik for the great visit. The Indo-American Center is already doing lots of impressive things as evidenced by this relatively recent article in the Chicago Tribune. We wish them all the best in their future endeavours in expanding their services to serve the youth of West Rogers Park.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Cabrini-Green Tutoring

Last Wednesday, I had the great privilege of visiting Cabrini-Green Tutoring, which is our sister tutoring program that serves students grades one through six who are from the Cabrini-Green area. Cabrini-Green Tutoring started at Montgomery Wards, moved to the New City YMCA and now has its home at the St. Vincent De Paul Center. This is a great location because Cabrini-Green tutoring has the advantage of being able to readily utilize De Paul Students, such as Sky, their program coordinator who is also a senior at De Paul.

Cabrini-Green Tutoring is structured very similar to how our program works here at Cabrini Connections. Students come on buses or are dropped off by parents between 5:30 and 6pm. They get a snack, and sit quietly in their seats until their tutor/mentor comes. They then work with their tutor/mentors on schoolwork or complete life skills sheets for points. Life skills sheets teach kids basic skills such as how to write a check, or how to take their pulse. After completing these activities, students and their tutors have a wealth of resources - games, books (both fiction and non-fiction), and grade-appropriate work sheets that supplement what they're learning in school.

Other ways for students to earn points is for the kids to turn in report cards and to have regular attendance. At the end of every quarter, students can go to a "store" that the program sets up that "sells" things such as Christmas ornaments around the holidays, or school supplies.

One thing that I was really impressed with was the level of experience of many of the tutors. Tutors sticking around for 8 years is not uncommon. For some tutors that means starting with their students in first grade and continuing on with the student into another program such as Cabrini Connections until high school graduation. For others, it means starting with a new student after their old student graduates because they enjoy working with elementary school students so much.

Students are also encouraged to engage in supplemental activities such as career day, which was last Monday. Students had the chance to learn about various jobs by visiting places as different as the Emergency Room at John Stroger Hospital, to meeting an executive at the Midwest division of the men's magazine GQ, housed in one of the top floors of the John Hancock building. Students are also encouraged to write essays that explore things they're interested in and possible careers they would like to explore.

Cabrini-Green Tutoring houses over 250 students and are probably going to make it to 300 students in the coming years. I was extremely impressed with the level of dedication of the staff and volunteers and the enthusiasm of the students. Thanks to Erin, the program director, Sky, the program coordinator, and Meghan the volunteer coordinator who showed me their wonderful program.

Also, to all the runners reading my blog (and who should sign up for the Chicago Marathon and run it on behalf of Cabrini Connections, Tutor/Mentor Connection with me!): Cabrini-Green Tutoring is having a fundraiser called Legs for Literacy, which is a 5k run or walk on Saturday May 17th this year. Everybody should sign up and run on behalf of tutoring and mentoring.

Friday, March 6, 2009

In Times Like These - Donor's Forum Conference

Today's not an easy time to be a non-profit. Actually, it's not an easy time to be an American - the newest unemployment figures have come out and we are up to 8.1% unemployment, with 650,000 jobs lost in the month of February alone. However, tough times have happened before and often creative people use these types of rough economic times to come up with creative ways to make the world a better place. Just look at all the great public works programs that resulted out of the Great Depression.

For these reasons, I was very excited about going to a conference this morning at Roosevelt University, run by Donor's Forum about "Best Practices and Resources for Non-Profit Leaders." Donor's Forum is " the premier resource for networking and education, information and knowledge, and leadership on behalf of philanthropy in Illinois." This forum was greatly needed and I was pleased to see many of my tutoring and mentoring colleagues attending as well.

I could write pages about what I learned this morning, but I think the best way to convey to you all the great ideas that people brought to the conference is to write about what the most important idea that I came back to work with out of each of the speakers.

The structure of the conference worked very well. The morning was divided into six speakers, each talking about an important topic relating to helping non-profits survive the recession.

The first speaker was Anna Sullivan, with the Arts & Business Council of Chicago.
Ms. Sullivan spoke about the importance of good board governance. I believe board governance is an especially important topic in these times as many non-profit organizations rely on boards to bring in funding and be the faces of that organization to the public. In fact, we are going to have a panel discussion at the May Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference specifically about board governance, because we think it's so importance. Anyway, the big idea that came out of this discussion is that the members of your board are a wealth of resources and knowledge and their creativity and talent are keys to finding new ways to get dollars and survive this economic downturn.

The second topic was about financial management - a topic addressed by Richard Kurtz,the executive director of Lumity, a Chicago-based non-profit consulting service. Mr. Kurtz addressed the fact that the economic downturn was a perfect time to give a deeper look into the budget and that new and creative ways of improving your cash position and budgeting conservatively could benefit your organization in the long term.

The third topic was on Human Resources (both paid and volunteer) and was led by Jeanne Mayes of the Executive Service Corps. The main point that I took away from Ms. Mayes was that the economic downturn is a perfect time for organizations to create better transparency of its management with employees. Not only will employees be able to actively engage in helping the management of the organization navigate these tough times, but they will also be better prepared to address any changes that the organization might have to go through.

Communications was the fourth topic and it was led by Thom Clark of the Community Media Workshop. I think the best thing that I took away from this discussion was the great opportunity that Facebook is in helping both large organizations advance their cause, especially to a younger audience, and help small organizations in acting as somewhat of a proxy webpage for the organization if their not enough funding or resources to maintain a website.

Fundraising, the fifth topic, seemed to be the topic that everyone came for. Jamie Phillipe, of the Chicago Community Trust for Donors Forum. Ms. Phillipe's main point was to remain optimistic and creative during the downturn and to look at the big picture in fundraising - that just because a company or a foundation doesn't immediately donate, but to stay persistent and positive because you never know when new funding could arise

The final topic was on advocacy, especially political advocacy since it was presented by Larry Suffredin, who is the current 13th District Cook County Commisioner. Mr. Suffredin gave us tips on how to most constructively contact your legislator and how to get political figures to come to your organization's events. His emphasis in that respect is that just because a political figure attends your organization's event doesn't mean that that should be the end of the relationship and that it's especially valuable to have someone be a liaison to that person in the organization before, during, and after an event.

Despite these difficult times, I came out of this conference feeling inspired and optimistic. We will be able to make it through these tough economic times if we have just a little bit of creativity and resilience in us!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Midtown Center for Boys

Last Saturday, I had the great privilege of visiting Midtown Center for Boys in Bucktown. Serving primarily African-American and Latino boys from all over Chicago, Midtown Center for Boys offers one-on-one tutoring and mentoring for 4th-6th graders. After 6th grade, the tutoring program is centered around enrichment classes to prepare the students for test-taking and college admissions. The one-on-one tutoring and mentoring program is where the boys get their start at academic enrichment, and that's what I visited.

Every tutoring session begins with 45 minutes of sports - a great idea in my opinion because I know how energetic kids can be after getting out of school or waking up in the morning on Saturdays. This helps them better focus for the next hour and 15 minutes on their schoolwork. Students then meet with their tutors one-on-one for about an hour. At the end, their is a show-and-tell time for students and finally, a virtue talk. The virtue talk is led by an adult tutor/mentor who leads a discussion about a certain virtue. This week the virtue was enthusiasm, and I must say the boys showed great enthusiasm at participating in the discussion about why putting passion and energy into everything they do. Previous discussion surrounded around the virtues of compassion and dependability. I thought this was a great way to break out of the academic mode and help mentor the students into become better people. One of the tutors even had his student write an essay about the virtue that was discussed the previous week.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with the level of dedication of the volunteer tutor/mentors. Since Midtown Center for Boys is only for boys (there's also the Metro Achievement Center for Girls), all the tutors are male as well. Many of them are young professional, just out of college, and they showed great enthusiasm and passion for what they are doing. I saw some of them carrying books about geometry and preparing for state testing into the program - evidence that they were going above and beyond the call of duty of just tutoring for that hour. I was also impressed that many tutor/mentors had been tutoring for 7, 8, 9 years - which shows a great dedication to staying involved in students' lives.

I want to especially thank Angel Diaz, the program director of the 4th-6th grade one-on-one tutoring program for letting me come this past Saturday. I had a wonderful time at Midtown Center for Boys and was thoroughly impressed with everyone their.