Thursday, July 29, 2010

Site Visit to Chicago Lights: Summer Day!

Dodging honking traffic, brushing past businesspeople laden with briefcases, watching tourists snap photos, tossing change into the saxophone case of a street performer…these are among the first images that pop into my mind when I think of Michigan Avenue on a busy summer day. That is, until today when I caught a glimpse of a whole different scene in the heart of downtown Chicago.

Situated across the street from the John Hancock Center, Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church is home to Chicago Lights, an organization that seeks to offer “hope and opportunity to individuals and families who face the challenges of aging, poverty, and access to education and healthcare.” One of Chicago Lights’ eight community outreach programs includes Summer Day, a six-week summer enrichment program for ninety 1st-8th graders.

As any teacher will attest, summer is often a time when students forget much of their academic knowledge acquired throughout the school year, so Summer Day provides a means for kids to continue their studies while also enjoying recreational activities. Students rotate to different classrooms led by certified teachers, a crew of volunteers, and staff. Yet while participating students commit to learning during the summer months, they are not sacrificing summer fun. Teachers find creative means to bring subjects to life and keep students engaged. For instance, in science class, students have been disassembling old appliances and turning them into robots (I am so jealous!).

After morning academic sessions, students attend art classes of their choosing ranging from hip-hop to acting to singing. At the end of the program, students have the opportunity to showcase their hard work with a culminating performance for the community.

When my co-worker Bradley Troast and I met Alex Cornwell, Director of Chicago Lights Tutoring and Summer Day, she was carrying several dozen shovels and buckets in her arms. As she informed me and Bradley, each Friday the students go on a field-trip and tomorrow they will be spending the day at the beach!

As catching glimpses into bustling classrooms made apparent, Summer Day is an excellent example of a program that keeps students safe, engaged, and (painlessly) learning throughout the summer months. Many of the students are also plugged into Chicago Lights programs during the school year: more than half of the students that attend Summer Day are part of the one-to-one Chicago Lights Tutoring program which occurs from October through May each year and services more than 400 students.

For me, talking with Alex and seeing one of Chicago Lights’ programs in action reinforced an important lesson. It emphasized the value in seeking ways to collaborate between programs. There is so much that Chicago Lights does extremely well, and it can serve as a model to other programs. As Bradley and I chatted with Alex, we informally compared certain approaches to funding, volunteer recruitment, and volunteer training between Chicago Lights Tutoring and Cabrini Connections. Learning from one another is an ongoing process that begins with conversations like these—but it doesn’t end there. These discussions need to occur not only amongst program leaders but also between other leaders in the community. If programs can learn so much from one another, how much more could we learn from conversations with business people, media firms, and professionals in all sectors who have the potential to contribute their expertise to youth programs? As we begin planning for the November 2010 Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference, we are eagerly exploring ways to involve many sectors and encourage community-wide collaboration.

Visiting Summer Day was a great experience—thank you Alex for showing me around! I know that next time I hit Michigan Avenue, I will look toward Fourth Presbyterian Church and smile knowing about all the activity and individuals inside—students, volunteers, staff, robots, and all!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A New Kind of "Sales Team"

By the time I was eight years-old, I realized that being a salesperson might not be my calling. I remember walking around my neighborhood with my older brother, Blake, trying to get people to buy overpriced packages of lentil soup for a school fundraiser. In case you were wondering, lentil soup is a tough sell. Each time we approached the door of a neighbor, the scenario remained identical: Blake and I would knock then argue over who had to do the talking, a tired-looking adult would come to the door and fail to hide their disappointment when they realized the intent of our intrusion, some excuse would be made about allergies to lentils or a niece's fundraiser the person had just supported, and we would trudge away to the next house. Aside from some sympathetic family friends and relatives who were probably eating lentils for the entire winter, it's safe to say we didn't make a whole lot of sales.

Last week,
Tutor/Mentor Connection intern Willow Yang Liuqing approached me to see if I'd be interested in attending a workshop today on marketing for nonprofits and on building successful media campaigns through Community Media Workshop. Given my previous foray into "marketing," I knew I could use some tools and strategies. Even though advocating for tutoring and mentoring programs is a much different (and more rewarding) "product" than--say--
lentils, much of our work at Tutor/Mentor Connection involves reaching out to the community and gaining supporters. We therefore hoped to learn more about how to effectively communicate the mission of Tutor/Mentor Connection to a broad spectrum of individuals.

The attendees of the workshop came from a wide variety of organizations ranging from museums to direct service nonprofits. It became clear through the presentation and through conversations that followed that everyone in the nonprofit sector grapples with similar challenges and questions.
Do people actually look at our facebook pages? Is social media as effective
as traditional media? At what point do people start tuning out even worthy messages?

In a way, I was relieved to know that others share many of the questions that have been going through my mind as I begin this position and try to find the best means to network with others, share stories, and build a community of supporters for Cabrini Connections and Tutor/Mentor Connection.
The presenters from Active Transportation Alliance stressed the importance of reaching beyond staff; although their organization has over forty employees, they still draw upon
volunteers, pro bono work from businesses, and interns as key actors in marketing their campaigns. They discussed the value in building longstanding relationships with media, volunteers, businesses, communities, and other nonprofits.

Clearly, gaining support for a nonprofit industry is a lot different than trying to sell a product, and unlike lentils, the mission of Tutor/Mentor Connection is something about which I am truly excited. I believe in the value of getting quality tutor/mentor programs into every neighborhood and that meaningful relationships with adults are integral to students' successful entry into colleges and careers. Now it's a matter of communicating that mission, cultivating relationships, and allowing people to become advocates themselves
as they realize we are all key stakeholders in youth's futures.

I encourage you to visit Dan's blog to learn more about who we are, and to check out the upcoming Tutor/Mentor Jam for a fun way to support programs in Chicago!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Here Comes the Sun: Jimmy Biggs Memorial Golf Benefit

Waking up yesterday morning, my first move after brewing a cup of tea was to check the weather forecast. Oh no: Thunder. It was the day of the Jimmy Biggs Memorial Golf Benefit for Cabrini Connections and Tutor/Mentor Connections, one of the biggest annual fundraiser events for the organization, so my fellow staff members and I had been holding our breath for sunshine all week.

By the time I arrived at Highland Park Country Club in the late morning, the clubhouse was already buzzing with excitement as Cabrini Connections, T/MC supporters, staff, mentors, board members, alumni and friends prepared for tee time.

For the duration of the tournament, I was stationed at Hole Seven along with Kevin, a Cabrini Connection alumnus who graduated in 2007. We enjoyed introducing ourselves and chatting with each foursome as they played the hole. I was struck by the variety of individuals represented amongst the 88 golfers: they ranged from people who have played in the tournament for over a decade to mentors who have worked with students for many years to individuals who previously knew nothing about Cabrini Connections but were out enjoying a day of golf with their friends.

Although nobody landed a-hole-in-one at our supposedly lucky number seven (there were some very close calls!), everyone was still in good spirits and having a fantastic day on the course.

By dinner time, I was thrilled to have met so many wonderful individuals who are all important to Cabrini Connections in one way or another. During a delicious meal, we heard from a program alumnus about the importance of his mentor relationship, and a current student discussed how her experiences in the Video and Filmmakers Club are influencing her career goals. President Dan Bassill then shared a bit more about our programs and made a sports analogy about how in order to get students and mentors “on the field,” we needed "fans and supporters" contributing whatever resources they can—be they in the form of talents, monetary donations, or networks.

As the evening drew to a close and as golfers departed with full stomachs, sunburns, and items from the silent auction, it donned on me that it hadn’t rained or thundered all day. Just as we saw the sun quite literally persist through the clouds yesterday, I also saw hope in a more figurative sense. Forgive my cheesy analogy, but in this time when the financial forecast is so grim and the majority of individuals must tighten their budgets, it is comforting to know that people are still generous and give what they can.

The day was a huge reminder of how many people it takes to make important programs stay alive. We face an uphill battle with the economy, but today I was grateful to see such a strong showing of supporters. I am so glad I had the chance to meet many wonderful people and thank you all for a great day in the sun!!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Edgewood College Visit Slideshow

The annual Edgewood College visit wrapped up this morning with more laughter, memories, and sharing. The day started off on a very positive note as the graduate students took turns discussing specific traits they appreciated about individual Cabrini Connections students. As students were recognized, they beamed at the affirmation and eagerly extended hugs and handshakes to their new friends from Edgewood.

The Cabrini Connections students then had the opportunity to share favorite moments from the past few days. Alisha discussed overcoming her fear of heights on the Ferris Wheel, several students spoke of the scavenger hunt, and Charles exclaimed that he couldn't choose just one highlight because "it was all SO much fun!" I must agree with Charles, not only because I tend to be somewhat indecisive, but also because there have been so many highlights over the past few days. Mostly, I enjoyed watching connections solidify between students and their Edgewood mentors. Each day, comfort levels rose, new smiles emerged, and students increasingly participated in meaningful conversations.

By the end of the morning, graduate students and Cabrini Connections students were sharing email addresses, facebook contact information, and self-addressed postcards. Equipped with so many means to stay in touch, the goodbyes at the end of the day were easier to swallow since these connections can certainly persist beyond the brief time we shared this week. Indeed, this room full of individuals with a diverse set of backgrounds, skills, and experiences represents the expansion of each of our webs of contacts and support.

Thanks to everyone for sharing such a great experience and please stay in touch!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Edgewood College Visit: Day Two

Today marked the second day of the Edgewood College visit. After a welcome and introduction from El Da’Sheon Nix and Dan Bassill, the day began with laughter-filled ice-breakers.

The graduate students prepared a series of lessons for the Cabrini Connections students in which we discussed what makes an individual “successful,” learned about role models from Chicago, and talked through our own future goals. The Cabrini Connections students worked one-on-one with the graduate students and I enjoyed watching (and admittedly, eavesdropping a bit) on some of these conversations as people shared their stories and ambitions. I was impressed by the willingness of the students to open up and discuss their goals, challenges, and strengths with candor and sincerity. Likewise, it was exciting to watch how intently they listened to the graduate students while they discussed their paths toward college and careers.

After these lessons, it was time to hit the city once again! Paired with the same group of students as yesterday (Dr. Tom reminded us that our goal is to build relationships), we eagerly set out. Although we had several delays including a bus detour and an open bridge, everyone remained patient and in good humor.

We arrived at the Museum of Contemporary Art and enjoyed briefly walking through exhibits. The students reacted to the artwork very open-mindedly. I enjoyed talking with Crystal and Alisha about what stood out to them while looking at several abstract sculptures and what they would have titled these sculptures were they the artist.

Soon, we headed to Navy Pier! It was a perfect day to enjoy Chicago’s most popular tourist destination, and our first stop was the famous, gigantic Ferris Wheel! After a relaxing ride (I was relieved that it didn’t go too fast…some of the students were disappointed…), we got some lunch and ice-cream cones and hurried back to the buses to finish off a fun and busy day.

Again, I felt so privileged to be part of today’s activities, and I enjoyed watching as Cabrini Connections students increasingly gravitated toward individual Edgewood students. And I have to say, it feels so satisfying to begin forming new friendships myself. Thanks to the Edgewood students for their hard work, Dr. Tom for all the planning, the Cabrini Connections students for their enthusiasm, and the weather for cooperating admirably. I am looking forward to our last day tomorrow!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Edgewood College Visit: Day One

Today I had the privilege of attending the first day of the annual Edgewood College visit to Cabrini Connections. For over a decade Dr. Tom Holub, Associate Professor in Education, has brought a group of his graduate students (all studying Education) from their campus in Madison, Wisconsin to put on a three-day summer program for a group of our students.

After a name game that got everyone on their feet, Tom explained that the purpose of the next few days is to provide this group of Cabrini Connections students with fun-filled activities that also get them thinking about their goals and futures. In the activities that followed, Cabrini Connections students worked with the Edgewood students to create diagrams of their support networks. In a similar fashion to what I have been doing so far on my blog, these students identified which people and communities they rely on for support and advice. I was thrilled to hear how many of the students talked extremely sincerely about the support and friendship provided by their mentors from Cabrini Connections. For instance, Crystal Townsend discussed how much fun she has with her mentor Brea Adams playing tennis, talking, and working on her math homework.

Afterward, everyone chose a creative means to tell the group a bit about themselves. I was impressed by the diversity of expressive forms represented. Some students wrote beautiful poems, others created artwork, and others did spoken word—a reminder of the many skills, talents, and individual personalities represented within this group of students.

Soon, we ventured into sunny downtown Chicago: Scavenger Hunt Time! After breaking up into groups with an equal mix of Cabrini students and Edgewood students, we headed into the city with a variety of tasks ranging from identifying a book on Oprah’s book list to finding the most popular games at the ESPN Zone. I was in a group with Crystal and Alisha who (luckily!) knew plenty about the bus system and downtown Chicago to navigate and lead our group with ease. I enjoyed learning more about these two young women who are both aspiring lawyers, excellent dancers, and know exactly where the Hershey Store is located (important for purposes of our scavenger hunt!). It was exciting to see Crystal, already an active students at Cabrini Connections, bring along her cousin who--like me--is new to the Cabrini Connections community. Based on her enthusiasm today and her eager assertion that she will show me the ropes at Navy Pier tomorrow, I think Alisha had a good introduction to the program!

After returning to the Cabrini Connections site (our group was the first to return, might I add), we enjoyed comparing stories and boasting about our respective teams' “accomplishments.” I loved hearing about new connections forged even within this relatively brief first time together. For instance, rising sophomore and aspiring journalist Charles Hill met an Edgewood student who offered him contacts to several journalists who would be excited to talk to him about his career ambitions. I was struck by how connections like these comprise invaluable steps toward realizing the vision of Cabrini Connections—to help youth through college and into careers by age 25—and how opportunities to interact with adults and professionals truly provide students with a huge advantage in this process.

As much as I enjoyed the entire day of activities, sunshine, and samples from the Hershey Store, the highlight for me was beginning to get to know some of the Cabrini Connections students. I was incredibly impressed with their maturity, poise, and cooperation while interacting with the graduate students. In talking to the students about their mentor relationships, I couldn’t help but reflect on how forming meaningful relationships with adults will help these middle school and high school students continue building their cross-generational communication skills and their ability to connect to a wide range of people.

I know Mondays tend to get a bad rap in the working world, but my first Monday with Cabrini Connections was definitely fantastic and memorable. Thanks to all the graduate students from Edgewood, and I am looking forward to tomorrow!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Village...

As the saying tells us, it takes a village to raise a child. Although I have heard this adage countless times, it is acquiring new meaning as I continue reading articles from the Tutor/Mentor Institute PDF Library. As these articles, experience, and even common sense teach us, in order for kids to thrive, they need support networks of adults who care about them outside of a classroom.

Many of these articles and presentations assert that kids living in high poverty neighborhoods have smaller networks of adults who provide support to get them through school and model various career opportunities. Simply put, these kids are at a major disadvantage from day one.

In looking at Cabrini Connection, T/MC's goal to get all of Chicago's youth through college and into careers by the age of 25, I couldn't help but think of the armada of support that I have relied upon from birth through now as I creep toward age twenty-three. While creating a diagram of my network of opportunities and adult support, more role models and experiences came to mind than I could possibly fit on one page.

As I begin to get my feet wet in launching a career path, I realize how many people helped "raise" me. I also recognize how fortunate I am to have been granted these opportunities and connections. Growing up, I was privileged to be exposed to many types of adults and many outlets for budding interests. While some of these activities did not lead to any lasting passion (ie: basketball, much to my athletic father's chagrin), others--like internship experiences with youth in high school--have sparked career aspirations or enabled me to discover emerging gifts. It took a lot of people believing in me and a lot of adults guiding me to get me through elementary school, high school, and now college.

While I have been incredibly fortunate, many youth do not have a wide network of adult encouragement. This is where one-on-one tutoring/mentoring programs fill in a gaping hole. Organizations like Cabrini Connections and many others throughout Chicago provide youth with programs to develop talents, achieve academically, and--most importantly--form lasting relationships with people who are cheering for them to succeed and know that they can.

As I continue learning about my role within Cabrini Connections, T/MC I will keep my own "village" of role models in mind realizing that launching youth into careers calls upon each and every member of a community.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

First Day Reflections

It's official: After filling out paperwork, setting up my own desk, learning how to log-on to the computer system, and even starting a blog it is really beginning to feel like I am part of Cabrini Connections, Tutor/Mentor Connection.

Before I go on talking about my first day, I should probably introduce myself. My name is Karina Walker and I am incredibly excited to be the 2010-2011 fellow to CC, T/MC through the Northwestern Public Interest Program (PIP), a fellowship that places recent Northwestern graduates into jobs in the public interest sector. I graduated from Northwestern two weeks ago with majors in Cultural Anthropology and International Studies. I am originally from Spokane, Washington, but have since fallen in love with Chicago (although I still shiver at the thought of the windy city's weather in February). I have long felt passionate about empowering youth, and I have had opportunities to volunteer for programs working with kids living on the streets in South America, youth from disadvantaged neighborhoods in Washington state, and kids from Chicago's suburbs. I am thrilled to now be employed in a realm that so directly ties to this passion.

When I came in today, Dan immediately got me started looking through the wealth of information available through the Cabrini Connections websites. I enjoyed reading the operating principals set out by Cabrini Connections. As Dan told me and as this set of principals reinforced, Cabrini Connections seeks to revamp the way that tutor/mentor programs operate by applying business models to the non-profit framework. With a clearly outlined goal of getting comprehensive tutor/mentor programs into every impoverished neighborhood in Chicago, CC, T/MC commits to the same strategies and standards as leading businesses such as capacity building, research/development, and ongoing evaluation. As I looked through these files, I began to understand with new clarity that for tutoring and mentoring programs to be effective, every community member must play an active role: some as donors, some as visionaries, some as mentors or tutors, some as business leaders, some as political leaders, some as active parents, and some as volunteers.

In delving further into the importance of networking to a broad range of individuals, Dan and Bradley encouraged me to create my own "Asset Map" of the people, skills, and institutions I bring to my new position. As I began charting my own network, it became even more clear the wide span of potential connections and potential supporters every individual has to offer.

Although I have barely begun to touch the resource library available through Cabrini Connections, I am already learning so much. Perhaps one of the most important personal lessons from my first day on the job, however, is that growing into my new position will take more than filling out insurance forms or picking out office supplies to fill the drawers of my desk. It will take time to learn the complexities of the best practices for tutor/mentor programs, grasp the intricacies of Chicago's neighborhoods, or increase my own network. It should be a full and exciting year!!