PEAK Performance

Author: Sean Callahan '87

On a late fall day, Eileen Cavanaugh Bender ‘87 rode through Chicago’s West Side. Advertising sales executives like Bender, who works for Entertainment Weekly magazine, are a rare sight in this hardscrabble neighborhood.

The dishwater blonde with eyes that don’t take no for an answer pointed to a barren intersection where prostitutes openly court customers after nightfall. “Chantrelle says she knows some of the girls working there from grade school,” Bender said.

Chantrelle, a 17-year-old with cornrows and a love of Harry Potter books, is the reason she journeys here. She is Chantrelle’s sponsor in the Partnership to Educate and Advance Kids (PEAK), a not-for-profit Chicago organization providing high school scholarships and mentoring to underprivileged teens.

Chantrelle is one of more than 55 high school kids in PEAK, which Bender co-founded in 1997 with Maria Madigan Kelly ’87. PEAK matches an individual sponsor with a teenager in need of financial aid. The scholarship money sends the student to Holy Trinity High School, which has an enrollment of 400 and a reputation for offering students individual attention.

PEAK has become an obsession for Bender. “It’s like a second full-time job,” she said. It’s also her social life. She even met the man she would marry, Dan Bender ’87, when he was recruited as a PEAK sponsor.

“It’s a dating service on the side,” Eileen cracked.

PEAK also generates distress. Bender frets constantly about Chantrelle, who has had enough trouble in her life, including a mother diagnosed with schizophrenia. Chantrelle sees a therapist, paid for by PEAK, weekly. Now, as January finals approached, Chantrelle’s grades endangered her scholarship.

A sponsor pays a student’s tuition – a $20,000 commitment over four years – and agrees to be a mentor. In this role, the sponsor advises, encourages and sometimes cracks the whip so that the student maintains the 2.0 grade-point average necessary to keep the scholarship.

In PEAK, there are more than 50 other Chantrelles to worry about. PEAK prides itself on taking tough cases, students who earned Cs and Ds in grade school but showed glimmers of potential. The students are from Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, where gangs, drugs, teenage pregnancy and poverty are endemic.

Many of the children live in Presentation parish on the West Side, where Father Tom Walsh, a PEAK sponsor of three students himself, is the pastor. “The odds are stacked against these kids,” Father Walsh said. “PEAK says don’t give up so easily.”

With the support of Father Walsh and others, the number of PEAK students quadrupled in its first four years. Bender frets about the program’s ability to keep pace. She is especially concerned now that Kelly, her partner from the beginning, moved to England after getting married in December.

“I was the salesperson, and Maria was the educator,” Bender said of her friend, who taught at Saint Ignatius College Prep in Chicago before she went to work for Andersen Consulting, now Accenture, Ltd. “We are a great team. It wouldn’t have worked if we weren’t together.”

She paused a moment and added, “This is what makes me lose sleep at night.”

As the car pulled up to Chantrelle’s apartment, where the girl lives with her great-aunt and stepsister, Bender relayed an experience Charntrell told her about. A few nights before, gunshots had echoed down the gangway between Chantrelle’s apartment and the building next door, where a drug dealer is said to live. Chantrelle said she knew how to react: “I dove right on the ground.” Her great-aunt found Chantrelle and her sister under a bed, afraid but safe.

“I don’t think I’d even know what gunshots sound like,” Bender said.

She came to community activism late in life. Even though her mother is a chaplain at a hospice, Bender didn’t volunteer at the Center for Social Concerns in college. Instead, she frequented the Commons, a now defunct dive, volunteering to buy the next round.

A few years after graduation, Bender was working in New York City. Kelly recommended that she consider joining the Student Sponsor Partners, a program that matched mentors with students. As a teacher at a Manhattan Catholic school, Kelly was faculty liaison for the program. Bender sponsored and mentored a young woman. She became a convert.

Transferred by Entertainment Weekly to Chicago in 1997, Bender met with Kelly, who had also moved to Chicago, and suggested that they start a program modeled after the Student Sponsor Partners. “One night we literally sat down at a table with our address books and, I think, a Notre Dame alumni directory,” Kelly recalled. “We made three lists, one for people who had the money to be sponsors, one for people who had time and one for people who could give us both time and money.”

The first year Bender and Kelly hustled, begged, and cajoled to convince 10 sponsors to be matched with 10 Holy Trinity freshmen. It didn’t hurt to have such groups as America’s Promise and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America behind the concept of mentoring. Mentoring’s effectiveness is also supported by a number of studies, including an examination, begun in 1955, of impoverished children in Hawaii. The study determined that the presence of a mentor played a significant role in finding success at school and work.

Phil Smith is a Holy Cross brother, president of Holy Trinity, and currently the sponsor of three PEAK students. He believes mentoring works because a mentor provides consistency for the student. “These are stable adults,” Brother Phil said of PEAK sponsors, “who on Monday will be the same way they were on Friday and the same way they were the week before that.”

Nancy Bufalino ’81, who works for Allstate Insurance, is the sponsor of Samara, a 16-year-old junior who is 5-feet tall from her black boots to the tip of her raven bobbed hair. Samara made the honor roll while acting as the primary caregiver for her 4-year-old half sister, Marcella. “I started taking care of Marcie when she was 3 weeks old, and I was 12. She used to call me Mom,” Samara said.

She cared for Marcie until her mother took a leave from work while pregnant with Jeannette, who is now 1. Still attending Holy Trinity, Samara took at job at McDonald’s to support the family. She worked 50 hours a week sometimes, often taking the Chicago El home after midnight.

When her mother gave birth to Jeannette and returned to work, Samara resumed caring for Marcie. Every morning, Samara drives Marcie to day care. After school, as required by her agreement with PEAK, she cleans one classroom, washing the blackboard and sweeping the floor. Then she picks up Marcie from day care and rushes to junior varsity basketball practice. She sits Marcie at the scorer’s table with crayons and a coloring book.

Samara’s mother has raised a remarkably responsible teenager. Bufalino helps by offering insight into the world beyond high school. “I’m not able to talk to my mom about college stuff,” Samara said. “My mom doesn’t know what college is. With Nancy, I’m able to do that.”

Bufalino, who plans to take Samara for a tour of Saint Mary’s College this spring, thought she might be the one to impress her student. It was the opposite. “She’s just a treasure,” Bufalino said. “It makes the whole thing worthwhile.”

In PEAK, some cases are harder than others. In Chantrelle, Bender has a tough one.

She does not approach Chantrelle with what Laura LoHenry, a Holy Trinity teacher, calls, “The typical ghetto children-white savior vision.” Bender understands she is not Michelle Pfeiffer, PEAK is not Dangerous Minds, and there’s no final reel when everyone’s problems will be solved.

Bender describes the experience gap between herself and Chantrelle as “enormous.” “I’m a middle-class kid from Baltimore,” she said. “It’s hard to understand what is best to help these kids.”

When she’s with Chantrelle, Bender struggles to discern the reality behind the appearances. Chantrelle’s street, with its Victorian-era architecture, could pass for a middle-class neighborhood, but the street is populated with girls who have dropped out of high school to have children. “I’d take my Barbies and play on their porch, and then they’d bring their Barbies to my porch,” Chantrelle said. “And now they have babies.”

Inside Chantrelle’s apartment on this late fall day, Catherine Jones, the girl’s great-aunt, greeted Bender with a warm hug. A trophy of Chantrelle’s, won for public speaking, was on a shelf. A Christmas tree stood in the front room. Family pictures covered the walls.

Beneath the surface warmth, however, seethed a family in disarray. One photograph taken a decade ago showed Chantrelle, her younger sister, and their mother. “You’re so cute, Chantrelle,” Bender gushed. Everyone in the picture was smiling, but Chantrelle acknowledged that by that time her mother had shown signs of the mental illness which would soon have the family living in shelters.

“I didn’t feel like I was in third grade,” Chantrelle said. “I felt like I was in college. I wasn’t worried about what I was going to have for lunch at school. I was worried about where we were going to sleep that night.”

Eight years ago, Jones legally adopted Chantrelle and her half sister. Now, at 67, Jones is weary of dealing with the girl’s lack of effort on her schoolwork and the hours she spends on the phone. “I don’t know what to do,” Jones said. “I don’t know if I’m helping her.”

These are typical adolescent problems, but for Chantrelle, as with many inner-city kids, the stakes are high. If she loses her PEAK scholarship, she likely will be back in the public schools, and Jones and Bender fear that Chantrelle won’t get the attention she needs to graduate.

When Bender and Chantrelle leave the apartment together to have breakfast, they avoid the topic of grades. They talk of other things, and Chantrelle’s voice is soft and a nervous giggle follows her words. It is hard to believe that this choirgirl – she sings at Presentation Church – has twice been disciplined for fighting at school.

Knowing that Chantrelle’s father is raising a second family and that her mother is still unable to care for her, Bender is prepared to forgive Chantrelle’s outbursts. But she has a hard time containing her frustration about the girl’s poor grades, which threaten her scholarship. She yelled at the girl earlier in the week.

“The first time she really yelled at me,” Chantrelle said, “I had to step back and tell myself she’s not doing this because she’s upset. She’s doing this because she cares for me.”

Near the end of breakfast, Chantrelle broached the subject of grades. “I know I have to do better, and I will,” she told Bender over pancakes.

Did she mean it?

Bender couldn’t tell.

Sometimes, despite the chasm of experience, sponsors and students get along better than anyone has a right to expect.

Scott (his name has been changed) was, Bender believed, a poster boy for PEAK. The 17-year-old junior was an honor roll student and basketball team member. A solidly built 165 pounds, Scott seemed as strong on the outside as he was on the inside. A ward of the state since he was about 5 years old, Scott had lived in 13 different homes, with relatives or in foster care, before arriving at Jamal Place, a South Side group home run by Ann Deuel, when he was 11.

“He was a pistol,” Deuel said. “There was no unexpressed emotion.” He also struggled with reading comprehension. Six years ago, he read at the second grade level; now he reads on a college junior level.

Deuel credits part of Scott’s blossoming to his relationship with Brian Murphy ‘81, his PEAK sponsor. When they met three years ago, Murphy, who has a broad Irish face and close-cropped hair, became an instant fan of Scott. He joined the Jamal Place board and became Scott’s Jamal Place mentor in addition to his PEAK sponsor. He raves about Scott’s 4.4 speed and his intelligence. “This kid is a 4.0 [GPA] kid, he’s a smart kid,” Murphy said.

Scott is fond of Murphy, too. For Christmas two years ago, he gave Murphy a small action figure of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and one of wide receiver Dwight Clark. He viewed these figures as good luck charms and wanted Murphy to have them.

“I guess I felt like I didn’t need the luck anymore,” Scott explained.

Maybe he acted too soon. In the fall he was arrested on an El station platform with a gun. It was a pistol-shaped airgun. “In kinder, gentler times,” Deuel said, “every kid who wanted a BB gun got one. It’s just that in this era of urban violence and Columbine, there’s a high sense of caution.”

The Chicago Police Department informed Holy Trinity of the arrest, because the school had asked the department to patrol the station. “I told [Scott] it was a good thing I was not going to his funeral,” Brother Phil said. “Chicago cops are not know for talking first and then acting later, especially when it comes to minority kids.”

Brother Phil and his staff suspected that Scott had brought the gun into Holy Trinity, an offense that would result in a “zero-tolerance” expulsion. Scott insists he didn’t bring the gun into the school, but when he lashed out at the dean, telling her to “F——— off,” he sealed his fate and was expelled.

Brother Phil said that Murphy behaved like any parent in fighting for Scott to remain at Holy Trinity. “Brian feels as much a father to Scott as I can feel like a mother to him,” Deuel explained.

Murphy, who is the head of development for a private school in Chicago, wrangled Scott entry into De La Salle Institute, a South Side Catholic school. “When we were clearing out his locker on his last day at Holy Trinity,” Deuel said, “he sought out people, some teachers, and expressed his sadness at leaving. It was heartbreaking, so that I was tearing up. I knew it was ripping him to pieces.”

Usually, PEAK sponsors are assigned another student if their initial student leaves the program. Murphy, however, has left PEAK as a sponsor for the time being. His allegiance is to Scott.

“They’ll be together for years,” Deuel said.

While Scott landed on his feet after leaving PEAK and Holy Trinity, another former PEAK student was in a freefall.

Roberto (not his real name), who should be a senior at Holy Trinity, lives in Little Village, a neighborhood notorious for gang turf wars and the presence of the Cook County Jail at 26th and California. Roberto became the first in a group of neighborhood friends to enroll at Holy Trinity and become a PEAK student. Several friends followed in his footsteps, including Alberto and Fernando, both of whom are seniors.

“This kid could be a great entrepreneur, a great marketer,” said Brother Phil of Roberto. Brother Phil lived in Little Village for years and became close with this group of friends. At different times he has sponsored five students from this neighborhood, visiting their homes, taking them on college visits, and having “come-to-Jesus” meetings when their grades are suffering.

Roberto sold Brother Phil on Alberto and Fernando after the pair had been suspended at a Chicago public high school. “When I was at Kennedy [High School],” Fernando recalled, “I wasn’t involved [in a gang], but the people I was hanging out with were, and they were pulling me into it.”

Brother Phil, initially skeptical of Fernando and Alberto, allowed the pair to enroll at Holy Trinity only after Father David Kelly of Assumption B.V.M. Church in Little Village vouched for them and only after he made them clean the kitchen at Holy Trinity. “I know we cleaned a lot of pots,” Alberto said.

Alberto and Fernando see Holy Trinity as a way to escape their neighborhood and the terror of California Avenue, a border street between two rival gangs that can be a deadly place for a young Latino.

“I’ve been in the community for 15 years, and I’m still grappling with it,” Father Kelly said. “Many kids don’t live past 21. They say, ‘Why worry about high school or the future? I might not live that long.’ We buried four kids over the summer. It’s almost surreal. So there’s truth to what these kids are saying, and Alberto is proof of that.”

On a summer day, Alberto was walking through an alley just west of California – a pathway that is usually safe – when he was mistaken for a member of the Latin Kings and gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Alberto was administered the last rites before the operation that saved his life.

“When I woke up I had 49 staples in my stomach,” he said. “I know because I counted them myself.”

Alberto sports a wispy goatee, and he is so slight that it’s a wonder any bullets hit him. He wants to be a Marine, but his first challenge, Brother Phil said, will be to graduate. If he graduates, he will be the first in his family to accomplish the feat.

Fernando, whose baggy shirts and pants can’t hide his broad shoulders, is a gifted student, despite learning English just six years ago. He plans to attend Saint Joseph’s College in rural Rensselaer, Indiana. The biggest obstacle is getting his immigration papers in order.

Both Alberto and Fernando describe PEAK – and especially Brother Phil – as a powerful influence in their lives. “They have the utmost respect and love for him,” Father Kelly said. “Fernando, in one of his college applications, had to write about the most significant event in his life. Fernando has a lot of significant events in his life: moving here from Mexico for one. But the most significant event in his life is moving from Kennedy to Holy Trinity.”

Fernando and Alberto, perhaps because family members already in gangs have shielded them, profess no interest in gangs. Roberto has not been so lucky. He was nearly expelled last year for doodling gang signs on his notebook. He was finally expelled and lost his PEAK scholarship after a car accident in which two of his friends were killed as he sped down California Avenue trying to escape a carload of rival gang members.

Because Brother Phil believed in Roberto’s potential, he was given a last chance and readmitted to Holy Trinity in the fall, although not as a PEAK student. Three days later, he was expelled a final time for bringing marijuana into the school.

Brother Phil discussed Roberto’s fate in his office at Holy Trinity. “Adolescents lead a double life, or even triple lives,” he said. “They have the face they show us, the face they show their friends, the face they show only themselves, maybe.”

The pain of losing Roberto and Scott from the school within 30 days of each other was evident in his face. “I actually believe this month has affected my health.” Brother Phil paused and added, “If Fernando dropped out, I’m not sure I could take it.”

When Chantrelle’s January grades were posted, her GPA dipped below 2.0 again. Bender steeled herself to drop Chantrelle from PEAK.

“I care very deeply about Chantrelle,” Bender said, “but at a certain point with this kid I’m struggling between enabling her behavior and understanding her behavior. . . . These are the kind of real world issues that we are faced with. What is in the best interests of the students? Sometimes I feel I’m too emotionally involved.”

Chantrelle knew what was at stake. “I’ve told her, ’It’s a big deal if you lose this.’” Bender said. “But she’s like a 30-year-old woman. She said, ‘Eileen, I’ve lived on the hard side of life before, I can do it again.’”

If necessary, Chantrelle was prepared to enroll at Orr High School, despite her distaste for the school. “Orr is like a pregnant girls’ school,” she said. “They have a day care center there.” She said nothing will keep her from becoming a computer programmer. “I know what I want to do in life,” she said. “My goals are not going to change. The path might change or get a little rocky, but I’m still going to get on with my life.”

But Chantrelle did have a major concern. “My biggest fear was losing Eileen,” she said. “That was all I could think about. She said that I’m her little sister, that we’ll always keep in touch, but it would probably be very difficult. It wouldn’t be the same. I’d probably get real jealous if she was helping someone else.”

In the end, Bender couldn’t bear dropping Chantrelle. Instead, she cut her scholarship in half for the rest of the year.

Jones, Chantrelle’s great-aunt, was in favor of the decision, despite the financial burden. “I’m still glad to know they thought enough of her to keep her in the program,” she said.

Brother Phil is optimistic about Chantrelle’s prospects. He teaches her in his Corporate Experience class, which prepares students for corporate internships. In one assignment he asked students to describe the most professional person they knew. Chantrelle wrote glowingly – and well – about Bender, Brother Phil said.

In the meantime, Bender is restructuring PEAK. The program plans to expand its board, attract more minority sponsors and raise more money. The organization is attempting to do this without any paid positions. Walter Bledsoe, PEAK’s executive director, doesn’t get paid a dime. Bender would like to change that, but she knows finding the money will be difficult – even harder with Kelly on the other side of the Atlantic.

And some days – like the days when Roberto and Scott were kicked out of Holy Trinity and PEAK – Bender finds it impossible to focus on the upside, on all those students who will graduate.

“When I have a bad PEAK day, I come home and cry sometimes,” Bender said. “I cry for these kids. And when I’m wondering whether it’s all worth it, Dan [her husband] is great. He says, ‘I think there’s value in trying.’”