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WITS mentor inspires joy of reading

Like many boys his age, 9-year-old Jalen Winston has not always thought of reading as one of his favorite pastimes. His reluctance to read in the classroom and at home was causing him to fall behind his classmates at Benjamin E. Mays Elementary Academy.

Thanks to Working in the Schools (WITS), a 25-year-old nonprofit that empowers young readers through mentoring, Jalen has become an eager reader both in and out of school.

“When he gets home from school, he picks up a book and reads for 30 minutes,” said Jalen’s mother, Nancy Perkins.

Much of the credit for Jalen’s transformation goes to his mentor, Gayle Drew. Once a week, the five-year WITS volunteer travels from her office at the Aon Center in downtown Chicago to Mays Academy in Englewood, where she and Jalen spend an hour reading together.

For Drew, a broker for Aon Risk Solutions, the program is a way to give back while engaging in her passion for education and working with kids.

“I always thought I’d be a schoolteacher,” she said. “So it came naturally to me.”

Drew is one of nearly 1,900 WITS volunteers who mentor struggling students in 89 Chicago schools. Her program, Mid-Day Mentoring, pairs corporate and government professionals with students for weekly reading sessions throughout the school year.

Brenda Palm, chief executive officer of WITS, attributes the program’s success to enthusiastic support from Chicago Public Schools, corporate partners, teachers and the volunteers themselves. “Magic happens when people come together,” she said.

Drew has worked with Jalen for only a month, but some of that magic is already rubbing off. Jalen is a more confident reader, even when it comes to reading in front of the class. After just a short time together, he is no longer intimidated by that challenge.

“Reading aloud is just normal,” Jalen said.

The benefits have extended beyond reading. Perkins has noticed an improvement in her son’s performance in other areas such as math and social studies. “You really see a difference in their grades,” she said, adding that Drew “really helped me with my son.”

Taking a couple of hours out of a busy workday is a small price to pay for Drew, who gains as much satisfaction from her role as a mentor as Jalen does as a protege.

“At the end of the day, you see a little light come on and they have this confidence,” said Drew. “When I see that, I know that I’ve done the right thing.”

To volunteer or to refer a child to WITS, visit www.witschicago.org or www.ilmentoring.org.

This is one in a series of articles being produced though a partnership between the Chicago Sun-Times and the Illinois Mentoring Partnership. Will Racke, the author of this article, is a graduate student at Northwestern University.