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Mentoring helps Chicago teen turn his grades around

Before he met his mentor, Derrell Washington, 15, used to struggle with low grades.

“He asks about my grades and how I’m doing in school,” Derrell said of his mentor. “I used to have all F’s and now I’ve got A’s, B’s and C’s.”

For the past seven months, Derrell and his mentor, Markice Hudson, have worked on homework together and have gone to arcades, museums and zoos and other outings as members of the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls’ Friends First mentoring program.

The Friends First program started in 1987 to put more caring adults in the lives of at-risk kids for one-on-one guidance and attention. Children ages 9 to 17 who sign up for the program are matched with a mentor and spend a year going on outings together.

Today, Friends First has more than 70 active matches.

Mary Quinn, manager of Friends First, said the program has given kids like Derrell greater exposure to new experiences and more adult support.

“I always think of it kind of as you have that one adult who’s in your corner, cheering you on,” Quinn emphasized.

While the program has helped many Chicago kids, it does face challenges, especially when it comes to recruiting male mentors.

“We always have more young men on our waiting list, and we have fewer men coming through the process,” Quinn said.

Hudson hopes more people will sign up as mentors for Friends First because his experience has been so rewarding.

“To hear from my team lead and [Derrell’s] mom and other people that when they talk to [Derrell], I’m all he talks about, that makes my heart so happy because I am able to be a positive influence in his life,” Hudson said. “That’s the beauty of mentorship — you never know how you affect a child’s life and what impact you leave on them.”

Whether Derrell and Hudson are celebrating a birthday together or working on homework, Derrell says they always have a good time.

The positive impact of mentoring has gone far beyond Derrell’s grades. Derrell’s mom, Eliza Lucio, said Hudson has helped Derrell come out of his shell like she’s never seen before.

“This has been the greatest experience I’ve had as a single parent to find these loving peers that will actually come and take my kids and take them out and spend time with them,” Lucio said. “That’s awesome to me. That’s the greatest thing.”

This article is part of a series, produced through an initiative of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Illinois Mentoring Partnership, to celebrate National Mentoring Month.

To volunteer or refer a child to Friends First, visit www.mercyhome.org or www.ilmentoring.org.

Author Alexandra Whittaker is a graduate student attending Northwestern University.