Mentor program helps youth in Austin

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Anthony Butler, 14, saw his older sister reach her goals when she joined a West Side mentoring program.

His sister, Ashley Weaver, 20, is a University of Iowa student.

Now, Anthony is paired with Erreyon “EJ” Elders in the Circle Urban Ministries Mentoring Initiative, a program in the Austin neighborhood that matches fourth- through 12th-graders with people from local colleges and businesses. Currently, there are 47 youngsters matched with mentors.

Established in 2004, the initiative’s goal is to help build “character, connection, compassion, competence and confidence” for young people in Austin, according to Ken Benson, senior program director of the initiative.

“If they have all of those attributes, they’ll be successful. That’s the holistic approach of a young person,” Benson said. “We always say to our mentors and mentees, ‘We want you to walk this thing together, hand-in-hand.’”

Anthony, an eighth-grader at Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School, and Elders, a 21-year-old Columbia College student, meet weekly at the Circle Urban campus to play board games and tackle homework assignments. Elders’ support for Anthony extends in the forms of dispensing advice and cheering him on at sporting events.

“I don’t say every time I see him, ‘You know, Anthony, you’ve got to go to college,’” Elders said. “I just think it gives him a different way to look at things, a look at the paths he could take.”

For Anthony, the weekly meetings for the last six months provide both positive guidance and comic relief. “EJ is like an older brother who helps me with the things that I need help on,” he said. “He has a great sense of humor.”

The relationships last for a while. Anthony’s older sister has spent time with her mentor since she was his age.

“Whatever change needs to come in the Austin neighborhood, this program can help lead someone who would start that movement in the right direction,” said Elders, who added that Austin has had its share of problems. “It’s one thing for adults to say that we need to change the community. But when you have kids who have been influenced by a positive role model, translating it in their own way to their friends, I think it has more power.”

To get involved with program, contact Ken Benson at

This is one in a series of articles being produced though a partnership between the Chicago Sun-Times and the Illinois Mentoring Partnership.

Adrienne Hurst, the author of the story, is a Northwestern University student.

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