Project SOAR, or Serving Our Youth Responsibly, is celebrating its 2oth year of pairing at-risk youth from Evanston and the surrounding areas with mentors.
The organization, which operates out of the McGaw YMCA, began in 1990 when the center partnered with other Evanston agencies to enable local youth to attend Camp Echo. The program has since expanded to offer mentoring and now serves about 75 children, ages 9 to 14, annually.
Mary Jon Girard, the director of youth and family services at the YMCA, has been a mentor for two years. The children, many from single-parent homes, are recommended by schools, parents, social agencies and the police department, she said.
"This is a premiere mentoring program," Girard said. "We use the best practices.
"I think the number one developmental asset that we're giving to every child is to have as many caring adults in their life as possible, and that's what this program does," she added.
While Northwestern University students make up a large portion of the mentors, Girard said people from all walks of life volunteer their time. Mentors must go through a rigorous interview, background check and training process to qualify for the program. After all that, they must agree to a yearlong commitment.
Rashaun Sourles was a mentor for four years when he was an undergraduate at Northwestern. Sourles said the program was such a positive experience that he continued to mentor with other organizations after he graduated and moved away from Evanston.
"I knew it was good for me to have someone looking at me as a role model when I was in college," Sourles said. "I'd think about all the decisions I was making."
"I really enjoyed having a place to go when my classes were over, where it was all positivity and love," he added.
Mentors spend time taking their charges out to free activities, with a focus on things the child normally would not have an opportunity to experience. Activities have included public concerts, YMCA events and train rides into the city to visit Millennium Park or attend free museum days.
Program staff members favor such free or inexpensive activities to promote relationships that revolve over time spent together.
"The time you spend is worth more than any gift or treat," Sourles said. "I never had to buy my mentees anything for them to really value my time.
"And that's kind of the lesson of mentoring: It's that people appreciate it when you spend time with them and listen to them," he added. "It can really help people grow."
Sourles says the program benefits the mentors as well. According to Girard, that's a common belief among Project SOAR mentors.
"Mentors will say, 'Wow, you know, I got way more out of this than I gave,' " Girard said. "Mentors generally are awed in the end by how little effort it felt like they had to give, and that they got so much more back."