In honor of National Volunteer Week, we asked WITS mentor Cady Swiler to reflect on her time volunteering in our Workplace Mentoring and virtual programs. Cady works as a Lead Recruiter for William Blair, WITS’ 2022 Corporate Partner of the Year. For three years, Cady was paired with C.J., a scholar at LEARN Hunter Perkins. C.J. joined WITS as a sixth-grader and stayed in the program through his 8th grade graduation last year. While Cady started mentoring a new group of LEARN scholars for the 2021-2022 school year, she has fond memories of her time with C.J. and shared her highlights, what she learned from working with him, and how her time as a WITS mentor has impacted her.
What brought you to WITS?
William Blair had sent out an email that said if you’re interested [in volunteering], come to an info meeting. I went to that, and it just shocked me how easy it would be. All I had to do was walk downstairs, and [I could] read and build a relationship with a student for an hour a week. That’s a no brainer. Why wouldn’t I do that? I love reading, and the WITS mission really resonated with me. They gave me the chance to volunteer while doing something I love.
You were partnered with the same scholar, C.J., throughout his entire time in middle school. How was it working with him?
I’m so lucky that I was able to work with C.J. for three whole years. I saw him grow as a reader, brother, uncle, and scholar. I also saw him grow in the literal sense, too. He’s a foot taller than me now. Our first two years were in-person at the William Blair office downtown. Last year was remote due to the pandemic. We read books about Native Americans and the Underground Railroad, worked on math homework (I’ll admit I was no help when it came to fractions), studied for his Constitution test, and talked about our shared love of The Vampire Diaries.
It was exciting that C.J. was able to return to program year after year. When you think back to when you first met him to when you said your final goodbye, what was that like?
I felt nervous on that first day getting our matches. I remember when I was that age [and thought], “Am I going to be able to talk to the scholars? Am I going to be able to connect with them?” I’m so grateful that I did have three years, because it made it easy to be able to hear how his summers were in Arkansas and how his classes were going. That consistency really allowed us to have a relationship that we were comfortable with. Getting to see that growth, I got to know his family story as it came up in conversation, his study habits, what classes he liked, what he didn’t like.
When WITS programs ended in the spring of 2020, scholars and mentors were not able to say goodbye in-person. How did you feel when you were able to reunite with C.J. once virtual program began later that year?
It felt like it never really ended, it just kind of paused, and then we were able to pick things back up. I’m so happy that we were able to include 8th graders [in virtual program], and I was able to work with him again. Last year, we spent less time doing homework and reading, and we spent more time talking and catching up during the program sessions. I got to see how excited he was to graduate. I can imagine him in his gown, and he went to H&M to get new clothes for his senior pictures. It was such an exciting time. Hearing about how he was navigating school and life during the pandemic was really rewarding, so I’m super grateful that we had that year to get some closure.
When we ended program [in 2020], I was in the midst of wedding planning. This was pre-pandemic, so C.J. had heard about when I’d gotten engaged. Then there was this huge gap in between [the end of program] and when we got it going in the remote environment. When we came back, I said, in passing, that I got married, and he was like, “What?! Stop! Tell me more!” He wanted to hear about it, and I remember that he was mad at me for not telling him. That really meant a lot that he cared about hearing how the wedding was.
What was something new that you learned from him?
I learned that he wants to be an engineer. We were talking about high school placements when he told me that. He’s great at math and science, so it makes total sense. He also said he applied to schools where he doesn’t know a lot of people or friends; if he’s brave enough to go outside his comfort zone at his age, then I have no excuse.
What do you like to do when you’re not mentoring scholars at WITS?
When I’m not in WITS, I’m playing or cuddling with my adopted rescue pup, Koozie.
You said that you love reading. What is your last favorite book that you’ve read?
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – so good and so much to unpack. I could talk about it all day.
As WITS continues to celebrate 30 years of working with Chicago Public Schools students and teachers, how has volunteering with us impacted your idea of what it means to be of service?
WITS has made it so easy to get involved. Had I known it would be this fun and easy, I would have raised my hand sooner. It has taught me the importance of leveraging what you’re passionate about so it never feels like service but rather becomes an integrated part of your life.
What would you love to see WITS doing in 30 years?
I think WITS did an incredible job of adapting during this global pandemic and digitizing their volunteer activities through Epic! and Zoom meetings. I’d love to see WITS continue to be adaptable and embrace new technologies. It would also be great to hear updates on C.J. and other scholars in our class, i.e. where they are in 5-10 years, maybe via a newsletter spotlight or alumni reunion. I know C.J. is going places, and I want to hear where!