TEAM Banquet Marks Culmination, New Beginnings for Erie House Youth

June 30, 2016 | Chicago, IL

TEAM Banquet

Graduating seniors celebrated their accomplishments at the 2016 TEAM banquet. This year's event was inspired by an Old West theme. FILE PHOTO

The playground adjacent to Erie Neighborhood House is decorated in an Old West motif, complete with a “watering hole” beverage station and WANTED posters strewn about. Many attendees have embraced the theme, wearing jeans with boots, flannel shirts, bandanas and the occasional ten-gallon hat. There are even a few Fu Manchus to be seen.

It’s the annual banquet for TEAM (Tutoring to Educate for Aims and Motivation), a flagship initiative of the Youth Options Unlimited (YOU) program at Erie House, and in keeping with tradition staff have gone all-out in an effort to celebrate the occasion.

And for good reason: The program has achieved a 100 percent high school graduation rate for 19 years running and boasts a 98 percent college placement rate over that same period of time. This year, all 15 high school seniors in the program earned their diplomas and will attend college in the fall. Two of the graduates earned the coveted Posse Foundation scholarship which provides a full-tuition, four-year scholarship and is designed to nurture young, diverse leaders across the country.

As the Old West saying goes, that’s about as fine as cream gravy.

Pairing youth ages 12 to 18 in a one-on-one mentoring relationship with a community volunteer, TEAM creates a network of support that enables students—many of whom enter the program experiencing any number of challenges—to thrive. Of the 100 participants in the program, a vast majority hail from low-income, primarily Latino families. The typical TEAM participant is an aspiring first-generation college student.

The program’s consistent success is even more striking when one considers the Consortium on Chicago School Research’s finding that the high school graduation rate of Latinos in Humboldt Park, Logan Square and West Town—the three primary community areas TEAM serves—by age 18 is only 38%, 45%, and 43%, respectively. Those numbers are well below the city average and a far cry from the TEAM program’s graduation rate.

“Our students know they need help and support, and they’re willing to receive it from their mentors,” observes Maria Muñoz, academic programs coordinator at Erie House. Muñoz is wrapping up her fifth year supervising the TEAM program, and she still marvels at how this dynamic unfolds year after year.

“Seeing how the mentor-student relationship grows is very rewarding,” says Muñoz, explaining how many of the mentors and mentees are meeting for the first time at the beginning of the school year. “Our mentors give their time and attention to the student,” she continues. “They show patience, care and respect, and I know the students value that and want to be both responsible and respectful in return.”

Students commit to meeting with their mentor once a week for two hours throughout the duration of the school year. Mentors hail from a variety of business and nonprofit employers across the city, and the program is funded by grants from Northern Trust Charitable Trust, Paul M. Angell Foundation, New Frontiers Foundation, DRW Corporation, St. Clement Parish, John R. Houlsby Foundation and Woodward, Inc. Many of the mentors follow their mentee through all four years of high school, providing a level of continuity not always replicated in other tutoring and mentoring programs.

This investment of time and resources pays significant dividends, as evidenced in the above data points. The success goes far beyond numbers, however. Talk to any of the graduates and you’ll hear about the myriad roles Erie House has played in their lives.

“Erie House is kind of like a family—it really is,” says 18-year-old Madi Royal, who graduated this spring from West Town’s Rauner College Prep. As she reflects on the past 15 years she spent at Erie House, beginning in preschool, she acknowledges the indelible mark the agency has made on her life. “That’s where I met a lot of my long-term friends. We have grown up together.”

She and her twin brother, Josh, are in the front row during the TEAM banquet’s awards presentation, seated on either side of their father. Their faces exude a blend of satisfaction, joy and gratitude. During their childhood and youth they’ve built relationships with peers, staff and volunteers, and those connections proved vital at various points in their lives.

Most recently, the siblings experienced the death of their mother, who succumbed to a lengthy battle with a heart condition a little over a year ago. Intense feelings of loss and grief set in, and performing what might otherwise be simple tasks—such as going to school or completing homework—became markedly more difficult.

“It was really hard,” says Madi as she recounts details of the moment they learned of their mother’s passing and the days and months that followed.

“Erie’s what kept me going,” says Josh. “They supported me in a lot of different ways.”

Both credit Dr. Elizabeth Yelen, director of support services at Erie House, with coordinating a safety net of care. They are also quick to praise the entire YOU program staff for the persistent support they provided, and the significant roles played by their respective mentors is not lost on them, either.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor,” says Madi. Her mentor, Ieisha Montgomery, had actually coached an Erie House basketball team a few years earlier. The two quickly bonded over numerous shared interests—an appreciation for Converse shoes among them. “She kept me grounded during my high school years,” says Madi. “She pushed me and helped me study. I really appreciated her—she was the best.”

Josh’s mentor, Mark Bassett, also made a clear impact. “He was a really good mentor,” says Josh. On the evening of the TEAM banquet, he presents an award to his mentor and gives a heartfelt speech chronicling the many ways Mark walked with him through the many challenges he faced.

Royal Family

Josh (in western hat) and Madi Royal sit on either side of their father during the TEAM banquet. Josh's mentor, Mark Bassett, sits beside his mentee. FILE PHOTO

“They just connected,” observes Madi as her brother searches for the words to describe what the mentoring relationship means to him. “They connected on a really deep level.”

This fall Josh plans to stay in Chicago to attend National Louis University; he will study psychology and hopes to become a counselor or therapist. Madi will move downstate to study cultural anthropology at Illinois State University in Normal. Both admit they’ll miss being directly involved at Erie House but leave the door open for ways they might be able to connect with the community in the future.

“They’re more motivated to give back,” says Muñoz as she describes the intense bond the Royals have formed with staff and participants at Erie House. “They feel like Erie House is their home and they know their voice will be heard.”

The TEAM program does not meet during the summer months, although other youth programming is still available at Erie House through YOU. Muñoz will work with program staff to recruit mentors for the upcoming program year while keeping tabs on students to make sure they stay on their respective paths to success. TEAM’s weekly mentoring sessions will resume in September after the school year begins.

For more information on the TEAM program, to become a mentor or to learn about funding opportunities, please contact Maria Muñoz at or (312) 432-2145.


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