Forming valuable bonds through Mercy Home’s mentor program

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Scooter, Bridget Brzezinski and Jurni hang out at the park as a part of the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls youth mentoring program on May 18, 2019. (Julie Jaidinger/Chicago Catholic)

Bridget Brzezinski was looking for a way to make a difference back in 2017, but she wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it.

Near the entrance to her office building, she saw advertisements seeking Mercy Home volunteers, so she decided to make a call.

That was how she met Jurni, now 14. The two have been paired in Mercy Home’s Friends First mentorship program for more than a year and a half. They started in the facility-based program, meeting at Mercy Home and participating together in activities planned by staff, then moved to the community-based program, planning their own outings around Chicago.

Friends First, founded in 1987, was modeled on the Big Brothers/Big Sisters model. It pairs individual men and women with pre-teen or teenage boys and girls, serving between 80 and 100 children each year. The children who participate are not part of Mercy Home’s residential program; they are typically referred by their parents or guardians or school officials, said Tilisha Harrison, the Friends First program director.

Since its founding, the program also has developed some direct partnerships with schools and companies.

One activity Brzezinski and Jurni often engage in is eating, especially in different ethnic restaurants where they try new foods.

“We like to eat a lot,” Jurni said in a telephone interview. Some of her favorite new foods have been saganaki, the flaming cheese that is a staple of restaurants in Greektown, and gnocchi.

Brzezinski doesn’t have a car, so the pair usually meet at Mercy Home — Jurni’s younger sister is in the facility-based Friends First program there — on Saturdays and explore the neighborhood on foot.

“We do a lot of walking,” Brzezinski said. “But that also gives us time to talk.”

Harrison said the program sometimes sponsors outings to special events, and mentors often make arrangements to take their mentees to professional sports games or museums, but they spend much of their time in more low-keys settings.

“Sometimes they just walk around and go window shopping,” Harrison said. “But that can be a way to talk about what you wear to go out and have fun and what you wear in a professional setting.”

Because both Jurni and Brzezinski are animal lovers, they have visited the dog adoption center run by the Anti-Cruelty Society at the PetSmart on Roosevelt Road to play with pooches, as well as local dog parks where friendly owners are happy to have extra hands to pet their furry friends.

They also have gone on impromptu scavenger hunts, Brzezinski said.

“There was that time I lost my keys, and we had to retrace our steps,” she said. “But anything can be fun and a learning experience if you keep a positive attitude.”

Most of the volunteers, like Brzezinski, are younger adults, between 21 and 35 years old, although a fair number of empty-nesters and retirees volunteer as well. Prospective volunteers must pass a background check and commit to one year, with the expectation that a second year will likely follow. More men are always needed to mentor boys, Harrison said.

Brzezinski said the first day she met Jurni and her parents, she was at least as nervous as Jurni.

“I wanted her to like me,” she said.

Jurni was in similar straits.

“I was so nervous,” she said.

But the match worked almost immediately.

“She was so friendly,” Jurni said.

Now well into their second year of mentorship, Jurni said she has become more outgoing and confident about talking to people she doesn’t know. Her parents even say she talks more around the house, she said.

Having that confidence helped when Jurni entered high school last fall and had to get used to a new social and academic environment, she said.

Brzezinski is also her favorite person to bring homework to for help, especially writing projects.

“She doesn’t tell me what to say,” Jurni explained. “But she helps me think of ways to say it better.”

Brzezinski choked up a little bit when told what Jurni said about her.

“I feel like I’ve gotten so much more from her,” she said.


  • mercy home for boys and girls
  • volunteers

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