Access Living Chicago where mentoring thrives

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Carrie Kaufman wants to be very clear about one thing: She doesn’t suffer from her physical disability. Rather, she has a physical disability.Kaufman, who uses a wheelchair, stays active as the head of the Disability Justice Mentoring Collective at Access Living Chicago, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of people with disabilities and helps them lead independent lives.“There’s an idea out there that people with disabilities are in pain and need to be fixed, which isn’t true,”said Kaufman, who didn’t want to discuss the specifics of her disability. “What they’re actually concerned about is succeeding in life, working on relationships, feeling supported—the same as everyone. What we do is give them a network to do that.”The Disability Justice Mentoring Collective pairs disabled youth with trained mentors to help with needs. The group serves 30 mentees at any one time and caters each program to a youth’s particular goals.“The important thing is that we’re available,”said Milton Jones, who has been volunteering as a mentor since fall 2013. “Not at all hours of the night or anything, but we always find a way to make the time, even if we’re busy.”Jones’mentee is Taron, 19, who is quick to identify Jones as his “big brother.”Taron has difficulties reading and writing, and the pair work together to develop his skills.“We play card games and practice handwriting,”Taron said. “It feels great because they help you.”But the relationship doesn’t end there. Taron runs a successful small business designing and decorating lamps, and Jones is his most trusted adviser.“There was a point last year actually when Taron couldn’t keep up with demand and was considering scaling back,”Jones said. “I told him, ‘We don’t do that.’We have to figure out how to grow.”In addition to one-on-one mentoring, the group meets as a whole once a month for educational seminars. They cover a variety of topics, including healthy cooking, relationships and sexuality, communication skills, the arts, career planning and fitness.Candace Coleman, who works for Access Living as a community development organizer, says the seminars are a place “to get real skills in addition to personal support.”Coleman’s mentee, Kiana, a 16-year-old from South Lawndale, looks to her mentor for more than just real world skills.“My birth mom doesn’t really give me the time,”said Kiana, who lives in a foster home.“But I can go to Candace about anything, even hard situations.”Kiana has hydrocephalus, also called water on the brain, a condition in which fluid builds up between the brain and the skull, causing her to feel fatigue and headaches.“At Access, nobody will judge you,”Kiana said. “They make you feel that this group is for people like you, and it gives you confidence.”To get involved with the Disability Justice Mentoring Collective, contact Carrie Kaufman at (312) 640-2131 or email her at ckaufman@accessliving.org.This is one in a series of articles being produced through a partnership between the Chicago Sun-Times and the Illinois Mentoring Partnership. Tobias Burns, the author of this story, is a student at Northwestern University.

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