By Annie Kennedy, Community Manager
At the corner of Jackson and LaSalle stands the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Surrounded by heavy bollards and an unobtrusive black and gold sign indicating what is inside, you might never think that, for one hour every Thursday, the bank changes. Fifteen employees close their computers and head to the fifth-floor cafeteria while a school bus filled with fifth through seventh grade students from Fairfield Elementary Academy pulls up outside. Suddenly, a normally quiet lobby fills with chatter as the students are greeted by officers overseeing the space and are led through security before going upstairs. Even though they do not work at the bank, they are as much a part of the community as those who spend their days there.
The WITS partnership with the Federal Reserve began in 2010. In the eight years since the Workplace Mentoring Program (WPM) began, a few changes have taken place. A newly renovated cafeteria has given students a more comfortable and open space for reading or working on homework with their mentors. While some long-term mentors have said goodbye, continuing their support for WITS at their new jobs, the team at the Federal Reserve continues to grow by welcoming excited and engaged bank employees as volunteers. Student make-up has changed as well. Originally serving just the fifth and sixth grades, students can now participate in WPM until they graduate from eighth grade. For a few Fairfield students, though, their WITS stories started before they even hopped on a school bus headed downtown.
In addition to WPM, WITS’ partnership with Fairfield extends to third grade students through the Mid-Day Mentoring program. Instead of bringing students to a corporate office, volunteer groups are brought to a CPS partner school for 45 minutes of one-on-one reading time. After spending a year with their Mid-Day mentors from Jenner & Block, students Adrian, Gabriella, and David returned to WITS as fifth graders for WPM at the Federal Reserve.
David reflects on his first year with WITS, saying, “When I was in third grade, my volunteer taught me some tips on reading, and he was funny. I had fun reading and learning how to read.” Now, with his mentors Amy Doperalski and Rishi Mehta, David builds on what he learned two years ago, diving deeper into the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and books by Roald Dahl. The bank offers him a quiet space for reading, where Amy says his interest is piqued whenever they read books about money.
His classmate Adrian echoes his statements, “I like coming downtown to the bank to read and talk about school and the weekends with my mentors.” As a third grader, Adrian liked reading fun books with his volunteers and now enjoys reading longer books with his mentors, Vanessa Haleco-Meyer and Elif Sahin. Similarly, when Gabriella is asked about what draws her to WITS, she said she enjoys reading comic books and chapter books with her mentors, Kathy Benson and Tamara Missick, and tackling math problems. “They help me with my homework, and I talk to them about school and how my grades are.”
Learning is a two-way street between students and mentors at the Federal Reserve. “I like hearing about Adrian’s thoughts and learning new things from him. He’s also exposed me to new books,” Vanessa states. Likewise, one of Gabriella’s mentors, Kathy says that she has a “better understanding of how students learn different things,” especially when, as an adult, it is easy to forget being once in the same place.
For Adrian, Gabriella, and David, what originally seemed like a cool field trip they could take every week is now something much bigger. The Federal Reserve provides a space for them to think, to question, and to explore. Their mentors recognize the inherent intelligence and power that they have. Oftentimes, you will hear about giving young people a voice, but at the bank, it is not about that. Our students already have voices, strong ones, and they also have the right people who listen.