Cabrini Connections links public housing kids and professionals

Dan Bassill has a big goal: Every kid who walks through his door will be in a career of their choice by age 25.

It might seem like a simple idea, but at Cabrini Connections, a tutoring and mentoring program that serves the Cabrini Green public housing project, it's not as easy as it sounds. Bassill says many of the kids he sees aren't even sure they'll make it to age 25.

"How can you expect kids to focus on learning if they're worried about whether they are going to be alive at the end of the day?" asks Bassill, executive director of Cabrini Connections.

To make that goal happen, he and his staff match up kids from the local neighborhood with volunteer professionals, helping kids get help with their homework and also connect with caring adults.

The program has its roots in a tutoring program for elementary school students started by Montgomery Ward, the retailer whose headquarters were adjacent to Cabrini Green, in 1965.

Bassill was an employee, and volunteered in the program, eventually becoming the leader in 1975. Cabrini Connections was formed in 1992, as an organization to serve students from 7th to 12th grade. The program now serves about 80 kids a year, with nearly 100 volunteers from all around the city. In addition to tutoring and mentoring, they also offer arts, writing, and video projects, as well as college and career counseling.

"Education is key, but it's not just academics," says EL Da' Sheon Nix, program coordinator. "Not only are they learning how to be successful academically. They are learning to make better decisions."

Nix says the kids that come to Cabrini Connections are bright and have enormous potential, but they don't always have access to the resources to nurture that potential, like parental support. They also might not interact with adults that work in the professional arena.

"You only know what you see," says Nix. "Here you have people who've done it, and they're here to walk you through it."

Whitney Hemphill, 16, is one of those bright students full of potential. She's grown up in Cabrini Green and came to the tutoring program to get help with her homework.

Her grades have improved, and she recently won the organization's "I Have a Dream" contest, submitting a proposal for how she'd like her neighborhood to change. Hemphill says she'll give part of the $100 prize back to another local organization that provides after school activities for elementary school students.

"Cabrini connections is a fun place to be," says Hemphill. "They do a lot of fun activities. They have a lot of events. They have a lot of contests."

Her tutor, Anna Ashbaugh, 24, who works in public relations, says mentoring is challenging work. But she thinks its worth it.

"It's a great place to volunteer your time and interact with these students that are working really hard," says Ashbaugh. "To consistently come and show your face is important.

Although the ultimate purpose of Cabrini Connections is to help the students, Bassill says educating the volunteers about the challenges these kids face is incredibly important in the fight against poverty.

"The volunteers, when they come into the program, they don't know a lot about poverty because they don't come from poverty," says Bassll. "The longer they stay, the more they understand the issues that they face."

Mike Ozmeral, one of the volunteers, is the vice president of procurement at Reyes Holdings, a food and beverage distributor. He started volunteering at Cabrini Connections in September because he wanted to help kids that don't have the same advantages as his own two children.

Ozmeral says he's learned to respect the children who live in Cabrini because of the everyday challenges they must overcome. 

"It's hard for us to imagine sometimes what these kids are dealing with," says Ozmeral.

One of Ozmeral's students had to go across town to get to his school, but often didn't have the money to pay for a bus or train to get there.

"There would be days, in fact, there were weeks when he couldn't go to school," says Ozmeral. "And he wouldn't take money from anyone. He wanted to get a job."

Ozmeral says his experiences here have prompted him to talk to his family, friends and co-workers about his students and their lives. His efforts led to more than $1,000 in donations to the center last quarter.

Student Yolanda Hyles, 16, and her mentor, Molly Shah, read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn together during Wednesday night tutoring at Cabrini Connections. / By Megan Cottrell

Bassill says he wants volunteers to take what they've learned and bring it back to their powerful social networks. This kind of advocacy is the only way to create long-term change.

"If we want these problems to go away, people have got to be willing to give time, talent, and money in large amounts for a long time," he says. "These problems took a long time to develop, and they are going to take a long time to go away."

Cabrini Connections has spawned another organization, the Tutor/Mentor Connection, an organization that connects and distributes information about mentoring programs across the city.

With 200,000 kids living in poverty in Chicago, Bassill says, the Tutor/Mentor Connection is a way to spread the kind of intentional volunteer effort it takes to change kids' lives.

"If people use the idea, it can have an impact on thousands and even millions all over the country," Bassill says.

Bassell has high hopes for the kids that come through the program and the lessons that the volunteers are learning. Mentoring, he says, is one of the best ways to do both.

"It's the only form of civic engagement to get people who don't live in poverty, to get them continually involved in the issue," says Bassill. "We try to change random acts of kindness into things people are willing to die for."

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12.