By Shamirah Jones and Imani Johnson
“How you doin’?” talk show host Wendy Williams asks her teen-filled audience at the start of each show. Most of us would not want to reveal our most intimate thoughts on national television. However, everyone needs someone to talk with, especially when things aren’t going well at school or at home.
Whom do you tell your troubles? Teens often are hesitant to share their problems with parents. If they turn to a friend, they risk getting advice from another inexperienced teen.
Teens can turn to counselors and mentors at school and at after-school programs. Community school liaison Carol Flowers is the go-to-person for students at the Westside Health Authority in Austin. Her open-door policy lets them know that she is always there if they need her.
“It’s a perfect way to build up trust,” Flowers said. Mentors need to show interest to help teens develop a sense of trust. Students trust Flowers because she is non-judgmental. Counselors at WHA are there to listen and to provide guidance. Teens respect honesty and want advice, but don’t want adults to tell them what to do. A mentor or counselor should lead students to make the best decision, experts say.
Many teens are referred by other teens to Flowers because of her dedication and reputation for following through. Flowers makes it her No. 1 priority to be a resource for students looking for work. WHA also provides a male counselor for boys who believe they have a problem too personal to discuss with a woman.
Flowers’ concern for students extends beyond her office, students say. If a student has not been seen, she will have the receptionist telephone to find out why the child is missing. After three days, Flowers will call to show teens that there are people who care for them besides their parents.
Public schools systems nationwide offer intervention programs that range from computerized phone checks to family counseling, all to reduce truancy.
“If students miss a day of school, a website, ParentCONNECT, sends an e-mail to their parents’ phone, letting them know that their child was absent from school today,” said Kayla Peterson, 18, a student at Proviso East High School in Maywood.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman has called mentors the new truancy officers. CPS is the nation’s third-largest district, with more than 408,000 students. Earlier this year, Huberman appointed Dr. Carl C. Bell, president and CEO of the Community Mental Health Council of Chicago, to a panel to review mentoring proposals for CPS. The program would focus on improving students’ grades and identifying potential victims of violence. In his “Seven Principles for Changing At-Risk Behavior and Cultivating Resiliency Among Youth,” the Chicago psychiatrist writes of “providing opportunities to increase self-esteem.” Mentoring can provide “a sense of models to help young people make sense of the world and teach them how things work,” Bell said.
At a recent Chicago forum on ending youth violence, Bell said: “Kids are gasoline with no brakes or steering wheel. Society has demonized children, forgotten that they are children. We need to focus on what is right with people instead of what is wrong…that is what saves people.”
First Lady Michelle Obama spoke of the importance of mentoring at a May luncheon in Detroit. “In every phase of my life, whether I was in high school or Princeton or Harvard or working for the city or working at the hospital, I was always looking for somebody to mentor,” she said. “I was looking for a way to reach out into my neighborhood and my community and pull somebody else along with me, because I thought, there but for the grace of God go I. I know I could be in a different situation from somebody else. So my job is to bring other people along.”
Shondell Pruitt, a 17-year-old junior at Orr Academy High School on the West Side, says he talks to his best friend about anything because he trusts him. However, Pruitt also realizes that he can’t always rely on his equally young friend. Another person Pruitt can talk with is his Spanish teacher, Anne Prendergast. She is easy to talk to and loves to help her students with their problems, he says. Pruitt believes he can rely on Prendergast to listen to him and help him. “A mentor is someone that tells you right from wrong,” he said. He also thinks that if more students had someone to listen to their problems that many would not end up in bad situations.
Andrew Cobes, a counselor from Youth Advocate, a program that matches young mentors with at-risk youth, visited Cory White’s home to determine why he had missed 54 days of school. “I got jumped on,” White told Cobes.
Cobes immediately asked White what he could do to get him back on track. Cory told him he needed to find a job and to get back into Chicago Vocational Career Academy (CVCA) on the South Side.
Cobes introduced White to Alvin Nickelson, who gave White a job at his barbershop until he could get a steady job. Soon, a more confident White was on the honor roll at CVCA and working at McDonald’s.
Cobes paired White with a personal mentor Shay Thomas at Youth Advocates. White, 17, said he feels that he can talk with Thomas because they are nearly the same age. He also said Thomas “is cool and doesn’t judge him.” More importantly, “she always has my back.” Now a junior at CVCA, White said Youth Advocates has changed his life. “I come to school more because of the support I have,” he said.
Imani Johnson is a student at Best Practice High School. Shamira Jones is a senior at Michele Clark Magnet High School.