“I am going to fail.”
I can remember those words ruminating through my head as I hesitantly flipped through the thick ACT packet, or as I liked to call it, 347 pages of pure terror that would determine the fate of my educational well being. By my junior year of highschool, I likened myself to be a slightly above average high school student. What with a handful of honors classes, one or two AP courses and more than a few A’s, B’s and C’s making an appearance on my progress report, I did pretty ok. Enough for my teachers to know that I had some semblance of common sense at least.
However, I never truly felt like I was worthy of anyone’s praise. Never at the top of anyone’s list, or the first one up for any prestigious awards. No one ever really took an interest in me, sat me down, looked me squarely in the eye and told me “Jasmine, you have what it takes to make it as a blankety blank blank.” Don’t get me wrong, I was never told that I couldn’t do something by anyone, but it makes all the difference in the world to hear that you can and will do something great with your life by an individual who has already done just that. I guess that’s why I changed my major thrice in undergrad before I finally let my passion find me in academic form with journalism.
I can truly relate to the aimless high school aged youths of today who seem to have no real direction in their young lives. This comes as no surprise, seeing that no real direction can be obtained without a guide to provide it. Or so I thought.
Fast forward 6 years, on June 1st, 2013, I find myself on assignment to cover the LINK Unlimited Fundraiser and awards ceremony at the ‘tres’ chic Alhambra Palace restaurant. The honorees included individuals who have made significant strides towards the betterment of their community; Dartestia Pitts, Prentice Butler, Lovette Ajayii and Karyn Watkins. Armed with freshly Google-ed bios, a brief background of the organization and an empty stomach, I make my way to the “press” section which was conveniently located near the hors d’oeuvres table.
LINK Unlimited, founded in 1966, was implemented to mentor high achieving high school students to successfully prepare them for the rigorous coursework they face in their prospective colleges, universities and beyond. They also undergo preparedness for life in and of itself.
Let me explain. Two of the five tiers that the program upholds is “spiritual readiness” and “interracial harmony.” It’s even laid out in black and white on the website, www.linkunlimited.org, that these children are taught to be aware, aligned and in touch with their spirit, which is necessary to have success in any realm of living. Oprah is somewhere doing cartwheels.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, LINK Unlimited instills the importance of “racial harmony” to their mentees. Learning at an early age that race, color, creed and culture are all important aspects of business and are imperative to being able to easily mesh with individuals who differ from their own environment. This comes at an invaluable time, seeing as though most children will not adequately be equipped with this necessity through just their schools alone. According to a report drawn by The Chicago Teacher’s Union last month, “CPS does not even have a semblance of a plan for integration and equity in learning conditions and opportunities that those who fought for desegregation hoped to ensure.” This is regarding the startling, yet truthful notion that Chicago’s public schools and surrounding neighborhoods are blatantly segregated by race, income, and even more disturbingly, educational levels.
Link Unlimited chooses 50 high achieving students to be placed with their own influential mentor in the field that they themselves have expressed interest in. This is huge. One of the attendees of the fundraiser explained to me that her former Link Unlimited mentor was Donald Rumsfeld. Yeah. That Donald Rumsfeld.
They then spend one-on-one time with the mentor, as well as partake in the many opportunities LINK Unlimited offers, including ACT and SAT prep. This formula surely is one that breeds success. One of the honorees of the night, accomplished lawyer Dartesia Pitts, revealed to me that she is indeed a LINK Unlimited kid.
“My mentors were Donald and Carol Asher, the former owners of the Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue and Balbo. To have such an affluent Black couple to not only exist in my world, but to have a vested interest in me, was mind blowing.” Pitts likened her mentorship experience with her unwavering need to make a difference in the lives of deserving individuals. So much so, she decided to leave a lucrative career in civil law, to focus on the criminal aspect to assist her falsely accused and convicted cousin while he was incarcerated.
“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. If I had’ve been there to guide him, that would have made all the difference in the world.” Since then, Pitts has made it her goal to stay dialed in with her community through her charitable efforts with CAN-TV and the Beloved Wellness Family Wellness Center.
Prentice Butler also had a meaningful encounter with LINK Unlimited as a youth. He explained to me that as a high schooler, he had the opportunity to apply for a spot in the program, but was denied acceptance due to his grades.
“I was crushed. Just to have the opportunity to have a free, quality education snatched away from me, because of me, was devastating.”
That minor setback did nothing but feed Butler’s desire to inspire his peers. Not only did he go on to receive multiple degrees from prestigious institutions, but he managed to implement an initiative to better serve his community by founding “Men in Service”, on Loyola University at Chicago’s campus as an undergraduate student there. Its goal was to motivate young males to commit themselves to community causes throughout the Chicagoland area. Prentice mentioned his solid foundation was built from seeking strength in his mentors: his parents. “They always stressed the importance of accountability and compassion.”
Also among the honorees were Red Pump Project founders Luvette (Luvvi) Ajayi and Karyn Watkins. The two media mavens founded the organization in order to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the subsequent preventative measures that can be taken. The bloggers utilize social media to influence affluent women to lend their support of the cause by rocking crimson heels, managing to empower and inform while in style. Fashion shows, charitable drives, and pop up booth for AIDS testing are just a few of the services these ladies have managed to organize tirelessly.
“AIDS/HIV contraction is so preventative, it just shows the lack of guidance that our community has – I say this because the majority of those infected with the disease are under 25 and are people of color,” said Ms. Watkins. “We don’t talk to each other like we really should. There are so many opportunities to NOT get the disease, but the conversations just are not being had with our youth often enough in order to have that happen.”
This raises an ever present, yet seldom addressed question. Why is there such a disparaging void of communication between today’s youth, and their slightly older cohorts?
The general consensus seems to be either lack of knowledge, lack of concern, or lack of empathy. LINK Unlimited dares to go against the status quo, and challenge those age old stereotypes with their new and innovative ways to breed our new generation with not only the tangible tools to succeed, but the human link they will need in order to attain true self actualization: their mentors.
As mentioned by the event’s mistress of ceremonies Dr. Toni Irving, “it takes 15 minutes of contact a day, to change a young person’s life.”
Looking back, I realize that although I lacked a mentor in the traditional sense, I experienced true mentorship through a little thing called life. I haven’t uttered “I am going to fail ” since.
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