Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged $36 million to citywide mentorship programs last year as part of his strategy to curb gun violence. But that goal has hit a snag: Not enough people are signing up to be mentors.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago said it’s turning boys away due to a lack of volunteer mentors, particularly male mentors of color. Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia on Wednesday talked to Brad Whitlock, a manager at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Chicago, about recruitment efforts and what it takes to be a mentor. Here are some highlights of their conversation.
On the lack of mentors
Brad Whitlock: It’s an issue we’ve been having, really, across the country with just men volunteering their time, being able to participate especially on the South and West sides of Chicago. We’re having those struggles of finding men who are willing to give an hour or two every other week to be apart of this program.
And it seems like, what do we need to do to for our messaging to get that message out there of the fun and the impact and all the special things that happens when you become a mentor. And that’s what we’re trying to do in ramping up our marketing and our overall messaging.
Here’s the thing: We’ve all been mentored. We’ve all had mentors in our lives, and every kid in Chicago has a mentor. The problem is who’s mentoring them. And we get desensitized by the news that happens in Chicago every day and the violence, and to be able to think about what can I do to impact one child’s life rather than fix the entire South Side or fix the entire West Side, we’re just talking about one kid at a time.
Tony Sarabia: How much of the decline in mentors is due to a rise in demand? Are we seeing more of a demand than we have in the past?
Whitlock: I would say so. Yes. Obviously, the kids we serve in our programs, the term “at-risk youth” is a pretty popular and board term. It’s that middle-of-the-road student. They might be dealing with educational problems — they might not be getting great grades — but they have a lot of friends. They might be doing fine in school, but they’re maybe the loner and their peer-to-peer relationships are a struggle.
And the neighborhoods they live in. It’s all of these things that encompass where they can fall off at any point. So many kids don’t have three strikes; they have one strike. If one thing goes wrong in their life, they don’t have mom or dad to help fix that and get them on the right path.
But you’re right, the demand has been increasing.
On why there is a shortage of mentors
Whitlock: A lot of our volunteers are in the North and Northwest sides of the city. They live in Lincoln Park and Bucktown, and so we try to match in our community-based mentoring program. That’s where you’re picking up your little brother or little sister at their home, and then you’re taking them out for ice cream, to the museum, interacting in the community. We want to make that commute time within a five, 10 minute radius.
So finding men on the South and West sides who live in these tougher communities who are viable, prepared, and can be trained and participate in our program, we’re struggling to get that message across.
This interview has edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire segment, which was produced by Jason Marck.