Monday, June 16, 2008

End Of Year Dinner

I'm still learning a lot about how Cabrini Connections works. Sometimes I get lost behind my mapping software and don't get to see what's happening in the trenches. Last Thursday, I had an opportunity to visit the troops.

Each year at the end of the school year, Cabrini Connections puts on a dinner for everyone associated with the program. I had no idea what to expect, but was told I would meet volunteers and some of the parents, and that there would be some pretty good food served. What's more, I was going to get a chance to see some of the kids' artwork and performances. I've seen so much amazing artwork come out of here this year (an incredible documentary about the history of Cabrini, artwork they created for their gallery exhibit back in February.... and even a recently posted music video). Honestly I couldn't wait to see more.

Well the food was definitely tasty, and I met some inspired volunteers. And the artwork, poetry, and performances were all top rate, as expected. But what really struck me was the emotion that spilled from parents, students, and volunteers throughout the evening.

Again, Cabrini Connections operates like this: Students who live in the underserved Cabrini neighborhood are paired with volunteers from all over the city in tutor/mentor relationships. The tutors come from all walks of life and essentially - as one parent put it - "adopt" the kids... a committed partnership in which both parties learn and grow together. Cabrini Connections helps kids develop skills they otherwise couldn't develop. It helps them network with people they otherwise wouldn't meet. It ultimately prepares them to earn better grades and opportunities in life.

I knew all this in theory. But I was still unprepared for the genuine emotion I experienced from the actual people.

I saw seniors tearing up as they thanked volunteers who had "worked" side by side with them for years (many of these seniors are on their way to college)... Other students courageously took the microphone in front of 170 strangers and proudly recited incredibly personal and soul-wrenching poetry. In the end, the kids exceeded my expectations.

Even more intense perhaps were the parents' testimonials. One gentleman demanded to know why there weren't similar programs for him when he was running the streets of Cabrini at age 15, parentless. This particular gentleman insisted that "when you have a program like this [helping give his 5 kids opportunities he never had] you have to do everything in your power to keep it." On the verge of tears himself, he heaped praise on the program and the volunteers, thanking them for showing up each week to help his children. It really was one of the most moving and passionate speeches I've ever seen in person. (I wish there was a recording. Maybe next year I'll bring a camera.)

But he wasn't alone. There were others. Another woman limped to the stage on a cane, admitting that she thought she'd never see her daughter get C's on her report card. Her highest expectations were D's! But now she "has a child on the honor roll" thanks to the efforts of Cabrini Connections' volunteers. Personally, this doesn't really surprise me. During my experience working at a CPS High School the past 2 years, it became clear that many of the straight-F students in this city are frustratingly brilliant, but have clearly given up on school. They're lost in a life-long sea of ineffective schooling, and they now suffer from a lack of motivation, hope, and confidence. Many respond well to one-on-one tutoring - many are changed simply by meeting people who give a damn.

So while so many talented kids drown in our underfunded schools (largely ensuring the perpetuation of poverty in our city), Cabrini Connections is fighting to motivate, encourage, and offer hope to students. Volunteers here are succeeding in prying open the hidden abilities of these otherwise neglected kids... while providing real experience and real opportunity. This IS all possible. I see it in the work these kids are producing, and I saw it in the faces of everyone at dinner the other night. This is very effective and very real.

Now here's the thing. A lot of people don't think problems related to poverty affect them, and take an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to their daily grind. I'm prone to it myself, admittedly. It's human nature... survival, I think. As Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor and other impoverished neighborhoods gentrify, "blight" that used to inconvenience the sightlines from our seats on the brown and red lines disappears. Some commuters might mistakenly believe that poverty in Chicago is "going away" too. But you know what? While the new census data in 2010 will likely show less poverty in the Cabrini neighborhood itself, don't be fooled - the kids are still here.

What's more, take a look around the city... off your beaten track. There are other wastelands of poverty - each with brilliant kids who are rapidly giving up hope. Is anyone helping mentor and inspire these kids? Here's the good news: There ARE programs like Cabrini Connections all over the city.

Cabrini Connections serves a mere 73 teenagers. The program has about 90 volunteers. Imagine what would happen - the successes and tears that would be shared at end-of-year dinners around the city - the improved outlook for our city - if more people would sacrifice just a little time each week. Dan Bassill here talks often of this concept of "sacrifice." He points out that it's easy for Americans to applaud the sacrifices made by firemen and soldiers (and who in their right mind would not thank our firemen, cops, and soldiers for protecting and helping us?) Yet when it comes to championing our students, not many folks are throwing parades for teachers or tutors. And far too many of us have given up hope on inner city kids without having ever met them!

The truth is that our future leaders in the business and political arenas are right here in our back yard. It's up to us to give them the encouragement and the guidance they need. If you are interested in helping kids in your neighborhood, please use the Tutor/Mentor Connection's Program Locator to find a program near you, or contact Cabrini Connections for volunteer opportunities. If the emotions I saw Thursday are any indication, it could change the lives of students, families, and yourself.

1 comment:

EL Da' Sheon Nix said...


I just wanted to say that this is a great article and it definitely attempts to put the genuine feelings and emotions that expressed during the event into words, for anyone who was not in attendance for the event.

Again, GREAT article!