North Central College graduate Kelly Flack is the youngest of four children and always wanted a younger sibling. So she became a mentor to Zaria Williams as part of the 360 Youth Services mentoring program.
Williams, who is 13 and lives in Westmont, came into the program because her mother suggested it.
While the two young women have only known each other about a month, and have vastly different backgrounds, they are enjoying the experience that brings something unique to each of their lives.
“We’re already established a rapport and trust,” said Flack, a December graduate in counseling psychology. “It’s great so far.”
And Williams agreed. “I can trust her,” she said of Flack.
Flack was introduced to the program when a representative from 360 Youth Services presented at North Central about the program. In the fall, she will start graduate school at Northwestern to earn a master’s degree in counseling psychology.
The mentoring program at 360 Youth Services started when the staff realized several years ago that most of the homeless youth they worked with didn’t have positive role models, particularly outside their families. They lacked any sort of relationships in the community outside of the clinical component that is part of the program in which they are enrolled.
“They didn’t have someone not in their everyday lives,” said Debbie Carr, residential programs director. “A person with similar interests as them.”
Having a mentoring program for homeless youth comes with its own set of issues though.
“These kids have a lot of trust issues,” Carr said. “People come in and out of their lives.”
While the program was set up to work only with homeless youth, 360 Youth Services has expanded it to any youth in the community who might need a mentor. And while many programs find getting adults to mentor youth an issue, this program lacks in mentees.
Carr noted that it’s often difficult for parents to admit that their children might need someone outside the home to support them.
To become a mentor, a person must be at least 23 years old and give a one-year commitment.
The person also needs to be available for the full calendar year, not living in another area for a season. Carr said that many retirees become mentors and find having a mentee “adds spice to their lives.”
While the program initially began for girls, as part of the Wings program that 360 Youth Services offered, it is open to all. The potential mentees should be between 10 and 24 years old for boys and 10 and 21 for girls.
360 Youth Services has 20 mentees and 29 mentors.
“Even when kids leave the program they continue to have a relationship — by choice,” Carr said.
The mentors are clinically matched to the potential mentees through an interview that explores their interests, what kind of person they would like to work with and a background check.
“Not every person who wants to be a mentor will be a good mentor,” Carr said.
The organization also requires training to teach communication skills, how to establish a rapport, and do role playing to prepare for any possible situation.
The mentees are not forced to take part in the program, but many find it’s worth their time.
Flack and Williams volunteered at 360 Youth Services’s Chocolate Festival recently, helping to show people where to go. They shared a meal not long ago, and in the coming weeks, they will go ice skating.
“She’s a great girl,” Flack said about Williams. “She is very outgoing and personable for being 13.”
Williams has no doubt about spending time with Flack either.
“She’s funny, cool and outgoing,” the mentee said. “And she has almost the same smile as me.”