By Susan Dibble
Roselle resident Ken Black figures he's personally befriended and guided at least 150 young people in the nine years since he founded Adults Involved in Mentoring Students.
He and volunteers he's recruited have been able to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of students served by Lake Park Community High School District 108 and its five feeder elementary districts, he said.
"When you get to know them and have a relationship with them, they'll talk about anything," he said. "Every child needs somebody other than their parents as a role model."
School officials couldn't agree more. Black, who plans to retire from his position as volunteer coordinator of AIMS when a replacement is found, recently was honored at the annual Recognition Breakfast of the Illinois Association of School Administrators in DuPage County. Superintendents from Itasca Elementary District 10, Medinah Elementary District 11, Roselle Elementary District 12, Bloomingdale Elementary District 13, Keeneyville Elementary District 20 and Lake Park High School District 108 joined in singing Black's praises. Students from Trinity Lutheran School in Roselle also are served by the program.
"He's extremely dedicated to the program," said Lori Bein, superintendent of Roselle District 12, who said she's seen mentored students gain confidence and improve academically, socially and emotionally. "It really probably could not be measured, the impact is so great."
Kim Perkins, superintendent of Bloomingdale District 13, agreed that it's hard to find volunteers as committed as Black.
"Every once in a while in your career, you run across a really special person who is community-minded and has a soft spot in his heart for kids and that is Ken Black," he said. "In my 35-year career, you don't meet many Ken Blacks."
Perkins himself mentors two students in the program, partly out of gratitude to people who were a positive influence in the lives of his two adult sons while they were growing up, he said.
"Ken has been a real force in putting this together. He's a tough person to say no to," Perkins said.
A former educator with a passion for kids, Perkins readily admits he doesn't mind asking people to volunteer to help a child. But he's equally passionate about helping senior adults find ways to contribute to the community.
"I just always think people need to use the gifts they have in a way that helps people," he said.
Educator to mentor
A former teacher who served eight years as principal of Immanuel Lutheran School in Hillside and 12 years as principal of Trinity Lutheran School in Roselle, Black was working part-time as a pastoral assistant at Trinity Lutheran when he was assigned to lead the senior ministry. By then a senior citizen himself, Black felt that mature adults needed more to do than go on lunch and movie outings.
"I realized there needed to be more for senior adults to do that could make an impact on the community," he said.
Black spent a year meeting with the senior adult ministry committee to look at what community projects they might take on. When they learned about a mentor program started by a Lutheran church in Chippewa Falls, Wis., in 1988, they were intrigued. Black and three other committee members spent three days visiting the Chippewa Falls program.
"On the way back, all four of us said, 'we don't have to took any further,'" Black said. "The people up there gave us all the materials free."
Black started meeting with local school officials to gauge interest in the program and received positive responses. He recalled the then-superintendent of Lake Park District 108 telling him, "Ken, I'm only going to back you 110 percent."
Reaching beyond his church and seniors, Black began talking up the program to civic groups too. Starting in the elementary schools, AIMS was launched in 2002 with 30 matches between students and adult mentors. Over the years, the program grew and Black received several honors for his work, including the Governor's Hometown Award in 2006.
Last year, AIMS reached a high point with 85 matches and between 70 and 75 mentors. Several mentors, including Black, meet with more than one student.
The responsibilities of mentors are simple, Black said.
"It connects one adult with one student for one lunch period a week. That's the total commitment," he said.
Even if the lunch period lasts only 20 to 30 minutes, over time the meetings become an important part of the student's life, Black said.
"Not many kids get that much attention for that long," he said, "It's not tutoring. It's making relationships, talking, having fun, listening, listening, listening."
Meetings take place on school property and mentors are not encouraged to contact the students over the summer.
The main requirement of mentors is that they love kids, Black said. Mentors make an initial one-year commitment to the program and need to be sure they don't disappoint their students by failing to show up on time, he said.
Mentors sometimes doubt whether they are making a difference, but experience and research say they are, he said. He recalled one new mentor who said she didn't know if she was getting through to her child, only to have the student come up and give her a hug and a card at an end-of-the-year school lunch.
"You know you are giving to a child and that child will remember you for life," he said.
Before becoming a mentor, the volunteers go through a background check, attend a two-hour training session and receive a handbook and a booklet of mentoring ideas appropriate to the grade level of their assigned students.
Confidentiality between mentors and students is stressed. Black tells mentors to have three ideas for conversation topics when they meet with students, but to let students guide how they spend the time together and not to be shocked by anything they might say.
"We say two-thirds listening and one-third talking," he said.
Twelve-year-old Joey Sandoval, who has had Black as a mentor for several years, said the first year he was shy and didn't say much. But he enjoyed playing cards and board games with Black, and learned he could trust him.
"Now I can talk to him," Joey said. "He really helped me with my problems."
Jill Markussen, Joey's mom and a single mother, said all three of her younger children are involved in the mentoring program. When Markussen's older daughter died several years ago, her younger children didn't feel they could talk with her about their grief but they could tell their mentors, she said.
"They adore them (their mentors)," she said. "They really do get a lot out of it."
Parents may request to have a mentor for their child, or a school social worker, teacher or principal may recommend a student for the mentor program. Typically students referred for mentoring may be quiet, lack friends, be new to a school or not involved in activities, Black said. Only two students in nine years have refused to participate, he said.
Ongoing relationships are encouraged and some mentors meet with the same student throughout the student's school career. Maureen Bell, regional president of Harris Bank Roselle, has served as a board member since AIMS started and mentored a female student for seven years until she graduated this spring. Bell plans to become mentor to another student in the coming school year, but said she hopes to have an ongoing relationship with her newly graduated mentee.
"I don't know if she got as much out of it as I did," she said. "There is no reward like helping a young person in life. There's nothing like it."
During the course of AIMS, Black, now 77, has been widowed and remarried. The father of three and grandfather of seven, he wants to step down as the coordinator of the program to ensure a smooth transition.
"I don't want to wait until I'm disabled and not able to do it," he said.
However, Black will continue to serve as a mentor and spread the word about the program. He's already spoken at a number of conferences and said he is willing to meet with any school that has at least a half-dozen people interested in starting a mentor program.
Not doubt, he'll also continue to win volunteers for the local program he started. He's been known to tell fellow passengers on airplanes about the program and allegedly to buttonhole people in elevators.
"I recruit a lot," he acknowledged. "I'm always to doing that."
For information on AIMS, contact (630) 259-8415 or aimsnews.org.