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Mentorship program supports black high school and elementary students

FELLOWSHIP AND SUPPORT: Children and youth in the Imani mentorship program gather for a celebration on the UTSC campus. Far left is Mary Anne Chambers, whose gift supports the program. Kneeling at centre are UTSC students Shauna Elahie and Michael Thorpe, facilitators of the IMP. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Felicia Carty

You can usually hear them before you see them, their voices bubbling throughout the campus halls, like a wall of sound that takes you back to your childhood years. And although the student body may appear to be getting younger these days, these individuals are not university students. They make the people on the U of T Scarborough campus do a double-take, since they stand a foot or so shorter than the usual student population, with comic characters displayed on brightly coloured school bags.

The visiting high school and elementary high school students are participants in the Imani Mentorship Program (IMP), which has been pairing up university students with local elementary and high school students since the program’s inception in 2006. This academic mentoring program provides an integral support system to youth within the Scarborough community -- fostering healthy relationships and encouraging young people to pursue post-secondary education. The program is an innovative partnership designed to support the personal and academic goals of Scarborough high school and elementary students, with a focus on youth in the black community.

This year, almost 50 high school and elementary students from the local community had the benefit of mentoring from U of T Scarborough students. The participating schools included Cedarbrae Collegiate, West Hill Collegiate, Pope John Paul II Catholic Secondary School, St. Martin de Porres Elementary School and St. Margaret’s Middle School, and the participants were from Grade 5 and up.

Parent Sarah Hosein says she definitely sees the difference the IMP has made for her son Imran, a Grade 11 student. “Imran is from a single parent home, and he’s lost a sibling as well,” she says. “He needed this kind of environment to lift him.”

Imran joined the program at the beginning of the 2008/2009 school year through one of the program partners, the Boys and Girls Club of East Scarborough. The mentorship program has had a powerful impact on him so far, according to his mother. “Imran is very energized when he comes back from the program,” she says. “He always looks forward to the next time, and he’s done very well in it so far.”

Imran said he hopes to become an auto mechanic some day, and he echoes his mother’s feelings about the benefits of the IMP. “You come here, you can get help with your homework, and you meet new friends… I want to come back here for next year for sure,” he says. “I even told some of my friends they should join.”

Tony Jno Baptise, the manager of youth and community outreach programs at the Boys and Girls Club of East Scarborough, says that the IMP involves more than just academic support -- it also aids in building healthy relationships and helping participants develop social and life skills. “That is very important because, given the advent of technology, we see gaps in their communications skills,” he says. “But through this program, we see an expansion of social, communication and interpersonal skills.”

Michael Thorpe, a psychology and city studies student, is one of the IMP facilitators. He said he has seen first-hand the value of the relationships formed between mentors and their protégés, known affectionately in this program as “mentees”. “The academic side is very important, but the social relationships and bonds that participants establish are the things that will stay with the young people for the rest of their lives,” says Thorpe. “Each mentor brings his or her own strengths and unique outlook to program. It gives kids a variety of people to learn from and get attached to.”

This crucial connection between mentors and protégés is a key component to the program, and the IMP partners say they are excited by it. One key partner is Mary Anne Chambers, former MPP for Scarborough East and previously Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth Services.

Chambers, who supports the IMP through a financial gift, spoke at a reception held April 1 in Bluffs Restaurant on the U of T Scarborough campus. Participants, parents, mentors, administrators and community members gathered to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of the program.

“I believe in mentorship and I chose to support the program because it contains all the right ingredients,” Chambers said at the reception. “Having students mentor others students in a university setting helps young people to understand that it is indeed appropriate to have big dreams.”

“Education is the door to opportunity. You have to knock at the door and sometimes knock down the door,” Chambers told the students. She also praised alumna Rashelle Litchmore for her role in establishing IMP. Litchmore is now working on staff as the community engagement facilitator within the department of student life.

“Just seeing the kids realize that they are part of something bigger makes me emotional,” said Litchmore. “It’s so easy for many of them to feel like they’re just another kid, but this program helps them realize that they’re special, and others see that as well. That’s very important, because many of these kids don’t get that anywhere else.”

Litchmore’s new role is to help facilitate a community outreach initiative on behalf of University of Toronto Scarborough called the First Generations Project. The goal of the initiative is to engage students whose parents did not go to university or college in Canada in order to demystify post-secondary education and present it as a viable option. Litchmore’s new mandate also includes working with the IMP, the program she initiated three years ago while a psychology student at U of T Scarborough.

When the program was first established, it drew about a dozen participants, operating in partnership with Imani -- the Black Students Association at U of T Scarborough -- and the Boys and Girls Club of East Scarborough. Now, the program has grown to support almost 50 students and includes approximately 25 mentors.

Although Imani focuses on the black community, the program and its successes have caught the eye of several other community and campus groups, according to Liza Arnason, director of student life. “This model has been proven to work, and can be used in different communities,” she says. Ideas are being explored to develop projects that work with nearby communities such as Mornelle Court to provide mentoring to their youth, as well as other areas surrounding the campus, she says.

“We want to set up panels with mentors of all kinds, to expand this model to provide support unique to other communities,” she says. Interest in setting up a similar project has been expressed by the Tamil Students Association and the Muslim Students Association, says Arnason.

Other ideas include finding a way to expand the IMP to run throughout the entire year rather than just in the fall and winter semesters, and to add a weekend component to the program as well.

For more information on the Imani Mentorship Program, click here.

Felicia Carty is a graduate of the journalism program offered jointly by U of T Scarborough and Centennial College.

© University of Toronto Scarborough