Unique bonds formed in Illini Mentor Program

Every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon at Prairie Elementary School, a small group of students can be found eagerly waiting at the tables in their classrooms, homework out and pencils ready. Although school is over for the day, these kids are not ready to go home yet — instead, they’re excited to keep working with their friends and mentors, University students in the Illini Mentor Program.

The Illini Mentor Program is a service-learning organization that builds connections with elementary schools, students and families in the Champaign-Urbana community. Along with volunteering at Prairie Elementary School in Urbana two days a week, mentors also work with students at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club in Champaign on Saturday mornings. Mentors spend two hours per session with the students, who are in grades three through five, and each mentor is paired up with one “mentee” to work one-on-one for the duration of the year.

While the mentors do help the kids with their homework, there are also other non-academic aspects of the program that are vital to IMP.

“I think the most important thing to point out is that we’re mentoring, not tutoring,” said Saranya Konala, senior in Engineering and site supervisor for Saturday’s mentors.

A typical day in the program is broken up into two hours, according to Konala. The first hour is devoted to academics, such as homework or working on reading or math problems. The second hour is usually a group activity that focuses on improving skills such as communication, leadership and teamwork. For example, one day, they might have a tower-building competition where the students work as a team to build the tallest tower they can. The activities are designed to be fun while still promoting social and academic skills.

Hunyah Basathia, senior in AHS and president of Illini Mentor Program, believes one thing that sets IMP apart from other student organizations is the connections that the group fosters with the elementary school students and their families.

“We encourage our mentees’ families to get involved and come to events that IMP hosts, such as end-of-the-year parties, holiday parties and family field day,” Basathia said. “We want our mentors to learn about the importance of commitment, dedication and how what they do really impacts families for many years.”

The Illini Mentor Program also greatly benefits the University students who are a part of it. Anita Pathy, senior in Business and internal communications officer for IMP, said that the service-learning aspect of the organization is really helpful to students.

“Not only do we send students out to volunteer each week, we bring them back for bi-weekly meetings to reflect on their experiences and what they’ve learned,” Pathy explained. “Apart from learning how to be better listeners, teachers and role models, the commitment that IMP requires teaches members about responsibility and how they can make an impact in their community.”

The Illini Mentor Program is dedicated to being a part of the community through both connecting to families and through fundraising events throughout the year. Along with collecting Box Tops for Education for Prairie Elementary School, the group is planning a 5k run and one-mile “fun run” as a fundraiser to be held at the end of March.

For the families and communities of Champaign-Urbana, many benefits stem from the Illini Mentor Program’s fundraising and networking programs. For the mentors and mentees, however, the best part of IMP is the time they get to share and the connections and friendships they make.

“I truly feel that we make a huge difference in these kids’ lives and provide them with an additional source of support that they may be lacking,” Pathy commented. “The bond you create with your mentee throughout the year can be really extraordinary.”