When he was identified as a leader by administrators at Round Lake Middle School, eighth-grader Marco Hernandez liked the idea of working with younger children who may have behavior problems or struggle socially.
There was one hitch -- Marco would have to spend one Saturday morning each month at the middle school mentoring at-risk children. Like other kids, he values his weekends away from school.
But seeing the improvement in the younger students through the Second Saturday program has made Marco and two other eighth-grade mentors glad they're participating.
Marco has even noticed some children seeking out his group on a variety of issues during the two-hour sessions.
"I definitely have a small, little entourage of people around me," he said.
Marco, Abby Hernandez and Allie Ramirez are the role models in the program organized by Harvest Bible Chapel Lake Zurich and the middle school.
Now in its second year, Second Saturday's goal is to provide a welcoming place for at-risk children while helping them grow socially and academically, organizers said. The eighth-grade mentors are a key component in reaching the children in a different way than adults.
Middle school Principal Jeff Prickett said Marco, Allie and Abby have succeeded in their role.
"They were picked because they really are at the top of their class in terms of behavior, academics, involvement in school and things that they belong to or are in," Prickett said. "I mean, they're here from sometimes 7 in the morning until 7 at night with all the activities and things they belong to. It's a lot of hours."
While Second Saturday offers plenty of fun, the group gets down to business when adults oversee the student mentors, who typically talk to the children in need of guidance about making new friends, the importance of doing their homework, learning proper behavior, improving social skills and other issues.
Allie said some of the children don't have happy family situations or get picked on for wearing what may appear to be the same clothes every day, so she and the other mentors encourage them to discuss their problems with a teacher.
Just making it known they're welcome at Second Saturday helps, she said.
"I think, in my heart, that we've been really good role models to (younger students)," Allie said. "We gave them a purpose to actually enjoy and socially communicate with others instead of them being alone and at home doing nothing, sleeping or perhaps being in the streets getting in trouble."
Abby said the mentors have benefited as well.
"I think it's helped the mentors out a lot, sometimes even more than it's helped the children," she said. "We just get that aspect where we get to be a role model and show our good qualities and then have silly times with the kids."
Prickett said the elementary and younger middle school pupils in Second Saturday typically have been at-risk children from single-parent or low-income households. About two-thirds of District 116's 7,000 students are from low-income families.
Harvest Bible's Justin Laib said District 116's demographics led the church to work with the middle school to start Second Saturday. The program is the only one in Harvest Bible's operation, officials said.
Certified adult sponsors from Harvest Bible who have gone through criminal background checks are with the eighth-grade mentors during the group discussions.
Second Saturday begins with a church volunteer-prepared breakfast at the middle school that includes eggs, bacon, juice and bagels. The breakfast is followed by a group activity ranging from a scavenger hunt to sports to crafting.
Abby said the breakfast and activities allow her and the other mentors to connect with the other children before breaking into small-group discussions overseen by adults.
Laib, who will be pastor at Harvest Bible's Round Lake Beach campus when it opens later this year, said Second Saturday represents a place where the District 116 children who need guidance know they are safe and people are excited for them to be there.
"All those things (at Second Saturday) are going to add so many positive things to their life," Laib said, "and it's going to leave less room for the stuff that they can get into that'll sidetrack them later."
Second Saturday has doubled to an average of 60 participants since starting last year. Organizers plan to discuss how to continue the program during the summer.
Prickett said it'll take time to evaluate how much children have benefited from the support and guidance they receive at Second Saturday. He said the program's growth and inquiries from parents who want to join are positive signs.
"One of the things I look for is an evolvement," Prickett said. "And we have the same kids who are consistently coming back, month after month, and are asking us, 'Can we do this more often?'"