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Friends First kids benefit from positive role models

Antonio Washington, 10, quickly dribbled around his mentor Matthew Sepanik before sinking a jumper.

The basket gave Antonio a 10-point lead before his eventual win.

For a year and a half, Antonio and Sepanik have played basketball monthly at Mercy Home for Boys and Girls in the West Loop.

They are members of the home’s Friends First mentoring program, which started in 1987.

The Mercy Home itself started more than a century ago for children who suffered from a variety of problems, now including abuse and abandonment.

The mentoring program is for youth who have problems but continue to live in their homes with their families.

The popular Friends First program has about 100 matches each year but has a waiting list of youngsters needing mentors, said Mary Quinn, the program’s manager.

“We always have more boys on our waiting list and fewer men coming through the process,” she said. “That’s probably our biggest challenge.”
Sepanik, a 32-year-old architect, said he joined the program a decade ago because he wanted to give back to the community after graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I went into it thinking that I was only going to be a mentor for a year, and I’m still involved after 10,” Sepanik said.
“This has been a rewarding experience for me as well.”

Sepanik’s first mentee is now a freshman at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

Antonio joined the program after Mercy Home officials determined that he needed a positive male role model.

He used to have problems getting along with other youngsters in the classroom, Sepanik said.

Aside from regularly playing basketball, Sepanik said he tries to expose Antonio to new experiences, including fishing and attending White Sox games.

Sepanik acknowledged that Antonio wasn’t initially excited about the new activities.

“He enjoys beating his mentor on the basketball court,” Sepanik quipped.

But the youngster grew to love time they spent together, Sepanik added.

Antonio’s mother, Sheilita Kennix, believes Sepanik is making a difference in her son’s life.

“I was just telling Matt — he and Antonio use the same phrases,” she said.
Sepanik agreed.

“Our relationship has grown pretty strong,” he said. “After a year and a half, it’s almost an extension of family. You’re in the kids’ lives so much.”

This is one in a series of articles being produced through a partnership between the Chicago Sun-Times and the Illinois Mentoring Partnership.
For more information about referring a child or mentoring, visit http://www.mercyhome.org/friends-first-mentoring.
Kathleen Morrissey, the author of the story, is a student at Northwestern University.