Smile Politely

C-U One-to-One Mentoring transforms lives

A certificate that says #thankyourmentor at the top in block lettering. The document is a letter from a mentee to a mentor.
C-U One-to-One Mentoring on Facebook

When 90-year-old Edith was asked whether she wanted to retire as 17-year-old Alice’s mentor, she laughed.

“No,” she said. “She needs to graduate high school, and I’m the only person in her life who will kick her ass enough to do it.”

Alice had a difficult home life, and she struggled in school, but through the C-U One-to-One Mentoring program and Edith, she found perseverance and a mentor to rely on when there were no other adults she could look up to.

Edith passed away last year, but as Alice and Edith’s family began going through Edith’s possessions, they happened upon a scrapbook compiled over the nearly ten years the pair had been matched. Inside was memorabilia from everything the two had done together, and some specific items Edith wanted Alice to have. Alice was like another granddaughter to Edith, not just a mentee. It’s an example of how the mentorship program changes the lives of everyone who participates, not just the students, often to the mentors’ surprise.

Alice is on track to graduate this spring, plans to attend college and pay next to nothing thanks to some hefty scholarships, and dreams of becoming a doctor.

Urbana High School’s mentoring coordinator Claire Pritchard says the pair is the biggest success story she’s ever heard coming out of the one-of-a-kind mentorship program spanning elementary, middle, and high schools in both Champaign and Urbana school districts.

C-U One-to-One is a mentoring program that matches youth with adult mentors in the Champaign-Urbana area. The program began in 1994 with 34 mentor-mentee pairs and has grown to serve over 400 active pairs in the Champaign and Urbana school districts. The program is funded by a combination of grants and private donations and is supported by and through the school districts.

The program’s mission is to provide support and guidance for youth who the program refers to as “on the brink of success”. Mentors and mentees meet weekly during the school day to build a long-term relationship that will support and guide the mentee throughout their school years and beyond. The program also offers financial assistance to mentees who graduate high school through a scholarship program.

Private donations fund that scholarship program. In 1999, when the first-ever mentee graduated from high school, the program gave them $500 to pursue college. This year, according to the program’s coordinators, C-U One-to-One is on track to hand out $14,000 to each of its graduating seniors.

Angie Armstrong, program coordinator for the Urbana School District, says mentoring has significantly impacted the students that participate. Mentors can provide a positive role model and support system for students who might need some added stability in their lives.

“It’s not just like, ‘Hey, let’s hang out and play video games,’” said Armstrong. “It’s like, ‘let’s talk about your feelings. Let’s talk about what’s going on in your life.’”

The program asks mentors to meet with a student weekly for one year, usually beginning when the student is in 3rd to 5th grade, but expects the mentor to return each year until the mentee graduates from high school.

“Mentors often provide support in college applications, job searching, and volunteer opportunities,” said Armstrong.

The C-U One-to-One program matches mentors with mentees based on their compatibility, interests, and needs. It includes a thorough screening process for potential mentors who are trained before being matched with a mentee.

Mentor coordinators, like Pritchard, match mentors and mentees and provide ongoing relationship support. Coordinators closely monitor mentors and mentees, and progress is reported to the school district.

“The program has successfully improved students’ attendance, grades, demeanor, and overall well-being,” said Pritchard.

Mentors have reported feeling a sense of fulfillment and enjoyment from their mentoring relationship. One mentor said that spending time with their mentee “helped them be a kid again.” Meanwhile, mentees’ parents say they feel “insanely grateful” for their child’s mentor’s support and guidance. Some mentees have gone on to become mentors themselves, wanting to pay forward the positive impact their mentor had on them.

“The importance of having somebody dedicated to you, willing to listen to you, and willing to be a sounding board for you, is just invaluable,” said Armstrong.

Other mentees say their mentor helped them fill out college applications and learn more about higher education opportunities when no one else in their life had graduated high school let alone attended college. Some mentors even take their mentees on college tours when their parents aren’t able to.

Sometimes, the benefits of this unique relationship are unique as well.

“[A couple of mentees’] dad is in heating and air conditioning,” said Claire Pritchard. “He’s gotten business from his kids being in the program.”

The pandemic had a significant impact on the mentoring program. Some mentor-mentee pairs felt frustrated or disconnected due to social distancing measures. Other pairs contracted COVID-19 or were scared to return to school. The program has seen a decrease in active mentor-mentee teams due to COVID-19.

Urbana has 120 active mentors, an improvement from the under 100 active mentors last year but still low for the program on average. Staffing issues also contributed to the decrease in the number of active pairs. Armstrong said the program is working to rebuild the elementary program in Urbana during this semester.

The program also needs more coordinators to support the mentor-mentee pairs and help the program grow. Armstrong said she intends to continue advocating for the program to the school district and community officials to secure funding and support.

“I think people are intimidated by the nature of the relationship and say, ‘oh, I can’t do this because I can’t be the support,’” said Pritchard. “That’s not necessarily true. You don’t know until you try it.”

Mentoring can be a fun and fulfilling experience for both the mentor and mentee, and the program provides ongoing training and support for mentors.

“Anyone can be a mentor,” said Armstrong.

Mentors are needed in both Champaign and Urbana, and at the elementary, middle, and high schools. Upcoming mentor training dates will be February 8th and 15th at 11:30 am and 6:30 pm, respectively. You can start the process of applying at the C-U One-to-One website.

Visit their website or Facebook page to learn more about the CU One-to-One Mentoring program. You can also contact Angie Armstrong in Urbana or Lauren Smith in Champaign with questions.

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