Inside of a small classroom on Chicago’s South Side, the piercing shrieks and squeals of 20 fourth graders who were just released from school don’t seem to faze retired Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood or his wife, Sarah.
The couple looks at ease as they make their way around the room, sharing high-fives and hugs with each of the children who will make up their first class of mentees.
“Every grown-up has somebody or should have had somebody in his life that made an impact on him,” Kerry says, as he discusses the role mentors have played in his life. “Mine were coaches, and obviously my Dad was a huge part of my life, as well as aunts and uncles.”
Kerry says for the children at Lawndale, he hopes that he and his staff make the list.
Developing the Program
The Wood Family Foundation developed Pitch In to guide students through their personal development and to promote self-confidence. The program also aims to foster healthy communication between students and their families.
According to the school principal, Willard Willette, the program addresses students’ needs from both an academic and a social perspective.
“This type of mentoring really brings a level of personableness to the children, where they can ask the questions that they might not have the opportunity to ask in a larger setting,” Willette says.
The program is offered to a group of fourth graders who were carefully chosen by the foundation, an advisory committee and school staff. Students were chosen based on their academic performance, personal needs and family involvement. Along with two-and-a-half-hour mentoring sessions every Tuesday evening throughout the school year, Pitch In hosts monthly family dinners.
“For us, the best part would be the family dinners at the end of the month,” Sarah says. “For four weeks they work on the curriculum and then they will get on a stage and present what they’ve done to their parents. They’re learning how to public speak, they are learning how to share with their parents and open that dialogue.”
Choosing Where to Pitch In
School staff says the opportunity for impact is great.
“If it was a scale of one through 10, I would say 10 plus, plus,” says Vice Principal Lekesha Moody. “We are in a challenging area, both economically and emotionally.”
According to Chicago Public Schools, 99.5 percent of Lawndale’s students are considered low-income and the school’s chronic truancy rate is 46 percent.
“I think overall there might be a lack of mentorship, just from the perspective of having that one-on-one or one-to-five ratio,” Willette says. “We just don’t have that in the classroom.”
Sarah says Wood Family Foundation chose to pilot their mentoring program at Lawndale to help combat the community’s startling dropout rate from elementary school to high school.
“It’s not like living in the suburbs where you know which high school to go to—your parents have to navigate the system if they can,” Sarah says. “Four thousand kids are dropping out in this neighborhood alone.”
Pitch In plans to help its mentees select which high school to attend and then eventually assist them in applying to college.
“I hope to be going to quite a few high school graduations and then college graduations,” Kerry says. “I think we’re going to be busy in about 10 or 12 years.”
Creating the Curriculum
As the mentoring session on Oct. 14 gets underway, half of the group of children leaps from one neon beanbag to another in a game of musical chairs, while the other half tangles their limbs together in a game of Twister.
Alex Scheidemantel, program manager, says the team of mentors tried to incorporate different themes into every month. Some of the themes include nutrition, safety and taking care of your body. Experts from different fields, such as doctors and dentists will come in to speak with the kids. The organization has even partnered with Emerald City Theatre to help the students perform one of the books they will read.
When asked what her favorite part of the program is, fourth-grade mentee Jamyrah Howliet is quick to exclaim, “Everything!”
“I would say for now what we’d love to do is do one thing and do it well,” Sarah says when asked about moving the program to other schools.
Wood Family Foundation plans to incorporate a new class of fourth graders every year, so that in four years, the program will administer five different classes of fourth through eighth graders, each class one night of the week.