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It takes more than good intentions to make mentoring work

“Sometimes the contradictions in their lives are so intense they seem manufactured for teaching life lessons, but it’s hard to keep up with what you’re supposed to be learning in that terrible moment between defiance and despair . . .” ― Pearl Cleage, “I Wish I Had a Red Dress”

I have this idea that works pretty well in my head.

It would require reaching out to young mothers and pairing them with older women made wise by the hard knocks many of them have had to endure.

“In her novel published in 2001, “I Wish I had a Red Dress,” writer Pearl Cleage created such a space and called it the “Sewing Circus.”

It was a place where young women could get counseling and develop mentoring relationships amid the worst of circumstances.

My desire to create a similar mentoring program has grown since moving into the city and seeing so many young women who appear to be trapped in a negative cycle.

But it will take more than good intentions to make mentoring work.

“One of the most important realities is mentoring is incredibly beneficial if done right, but can actually have a negative impact if done poorly,” said Sheila M. Merry, executive director of Illinois Mentoring Partnership.

“We have to make sure we are giving volunteers the tools to be able to hang,” Merry said.

To that end, the nonprofit is hosting a symposium 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 7 at UIC that brings together nationally recognized researchers with people who are either operating or thinking about operating mentoring programs.

Last fall, a statewide mentoring survey conducted by the partnership and the University of Illinois at Chicago found a troubling gap.

A quarter of the mentoring programs failed to provide ongoing, routine supervision of mentoring relationships and less than half had any formal process to offer support when ending them.