By Andrea Lee, MPA, Manager of External Affairs
April was National Volunteer Month, which to me, is a month of possibilities: possible connections, possible relationships, possible awakenings to one’s own city.
I am dedicated to connecting community members to UCAN’s programs and people in meaningful ways. Through these relationships across geography, wealth, age, race, and everything else, we build empathy and see each other’s humanity beyond our facades.
Case in point: A chance connection last fall has led to a supportive bond between a community member and a young person living in UCAN’s Diermeier Therapeutic Youth Home. I happened to sit beside a woman at the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council’s (NLCCC) meeting to launch their Quality of Life plan, to which UCAN is a key contributor. She mentioned she wanted to get involved in North Lawndale, so I learned that her name is Kenya Harris and we setup an appointment to discuss mentorship at UCAN. Today, she is the mentor to a 13 year-old who lives at the Therapeutic Youth Home and who has no other community supports or family. When I asked Kenya what it feels like to be a mentor, she responded:
“Being a mentor makes me feel good and is truly a blessing. To be part of a support system to a child in need is very rewarding. I feel lack of support is the primary reason many people have difficult times in their lives. For me, being a mentor is about letting my mentee know that she has my support and I care.”
The relationship can get complex, and the mentee sometimes asks for more than a mentor can give. I asked Kenya what was challenging about being a mentor, and she wrote:
“I never want her to feel like if I’m unable to do something it’s due to lack of care. So, I’m currently in the stage of creating healthy boundaries through communication so that she knows I care and if it’s something with in my powers to do, I will.”
Sometimes, it’s a chance connection with a large institution, like the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). On a whim, UCAN applied to receive products made by students during “Make Mondays Matter,” a few hours oncampus when volunteers assemble goods for distribution. This led to 40 students supporting one of UCAN’s close partners, Stone Temple Baptist Church, during UIC’s MLK Day of Service, and then painting walls and completing a variety of projects at UCAN Academy Grand during UIC’s Day of Service on April 13. Kennedy Hayes, a UIC graduate student in public administration, took some time recently to reflect on what UIC’s engagement with UCAN has meant to their students.
“Students have been able to see all of the ways that they can get involved so close to campus. UCAN covers so many projects that students can see and work with the issues that are happening in their own community.”
Kennedy also considered what it meant to work with each other, as we are geographically close but different in aims.
“It is vital for UIC to be more than a stand-alone university in the middle of Chicago. Integration with the surrounding community is so important for a thriving and successful population.”
Wrapping up National Volunteer Month is bittersweet. While the volume of projects would be difficult to maintain over the year, these examples highlight volunteerism’s ability to bring individuals and institutions together toward shared goals and a vision for a more cohesive society.
Check out our events during National Volunteer Month on Twitter @UCANchicago.