Illini Mentor Program adjusts to new COVID-19 norm


Photo Courtesy of Illini Mentor Program

Community members participate in the annual IMP 5k Run and Fun Walk at a time the COVID-19 virus had not reached the United States. The program has had to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Sana Madhavan, Staff Writer

With community programming being canceled constantly since last March, youth in Champaign-Urbana schools are increasingly disconnected from social services they otherwise would have. One such service is mentoring through the Illini Mentor Program. The Illini Mentor Program holds an hour of academic tutoring and also various kinds of support systems to help children from Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club and Dr. Williams Elementary with their social and emotional learning as well as life skills. 

President Halec Serlin and his team of executive board members and University mentors took this semester to truly plan out how the rest of the year would look given the unique circumstances and considering the tremendous need for their program. 

“This semester we’ve done everything we can to recruit online and then also to get mentees online so it’s been really difficult because it’s hard to kind of get in contact with them because they’re not directly affiliated with the school,” Serlin said.

He said it was normal in the past, they have a set of mentees that continue every year and parents see them every year there so it was pretty easy for them to see what the program is. Right now they’ve been actively demonstrating on what they have to offer and then also getting parents set up to understand that they’re going to be doing everything online.

Considering all these changes that had to be made, Serlin said he still feels proud of all the work his team has done in this planning period. With new mentors getting more time to settle in with the help of returning mentors, he thinks that they’re ready to start in the spring on a “strong note.”

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“We’re not going to have that kind of gap period where things are messy, because we’ve had a lot of preparation,” Serlin said. “A lot of the mentors who have been returning have been actively explaining expectations and what they can also expect themselves and I think that one of the nice things is we’re gonna be up and running very quick because of the constant communication we’ve had.”

Even though the virtual format may allow for more schools to engage with the program, IMP stands by its commitment to Don Moyer and Dr. Willians. 

“These two sites are the ones where we felt we could make the biggest impact so to say at, and also would allow us the freedom to give the best quality mentoring there,” Serlin said. “It’s kind of like they trust us to take the reins on this one and do what’s best for them or best for their mentees.” 

As for how University students can join and help out, Serlin briefly described the process as more about dedication than just trying to join. Mentors have to be truly dedicated to doing everything for their mentees. 

He said that they do have tight attendance policies for the benefit of the mentee and themselves. Having seen it countless times in the past, Serlin said where a mentor doesn’t show up for one day, the mentee who, the day before or the week before was defying and resisting at every instance, is in tears the whole day, .

“I remember even personally if I just missed a day, because I had to go home for something, they would say my mentee was always in tears and his mom would always mention to me how hard it was when I wasn’t there,” he said. 

IMP Member Development Officer Brianna Vargas-Gonzalez works to develop the mentor’s bonds with the mentees and echoes these sentiments. 

“We’re hoping that with our program we are able to provide some sort of stability for our mentees and children so that they actually have someone that they’re going to be seeing every week that they can confide in,” Vargas-Gonzalez said. “With so many uncertainties, we’re hoping that our mentors are going to be someone that is going to be a stable figure in their life.”

In order for the mentors to get to this point though, they have to go through custom programming and training led by Vargas-Gonzalez to ensure that they are equipped with all they need to succeed. Every single mentee is different so it’s important for mentors to have a basic understanding of how to work with their mentee, and then adapt those skills to their specific mentee.

“Even just like learning about where mentees are developmentally and learning how mentees learn is a very important thing to understand when working with mentees because we want to make sure that mentors are thinking about the kind of minds that they’re working with,” she said. 

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