At a time when young African American kids most need guidance, Urbana has lost a most remarkable woman whose life represented a commitment to that guidance. That woman is Janice Mitchell, who passed away in November of last year at the too-early age of 58.
Mrs. Mitchell served African American students and their parents in all grades of the Urbana schools. For much of that time she served as a volunteer. She lived in the area served by what was then Prairie Elementary School, but has been renamed Dr. Preston Williams Elementary School. Her children attended that school. She formed a student empowerment group there, took the students and parents on field trips, and held Black History Month programs that included her famous balloon release. She also worked with a program called Prairie Tracks, which was an after-school program for African American students and parents. It focused on African American culture and performing arts. She led students on trips to important African American sites in the US and Canada. In 2005, she began doing paid work for the Urbana School District. She became the district’s parent and community outreach liaison.
I first met Mrs. Mitchell in 2010, shortly after she opened the Urbana Neighborhood Connections Center. I contacted her and told her that I wanted to write an article about Neighborhood Connections Center for the Public i. I asked for an interview and she welcomed me with incredible warmth and a lovely smile. After I showed her the article and the issue, she asked me to bring future issues in so that the students could discuss articles in them. I was pleased to oblige.
I will write about the Center in the past tense, since COVID-19 might have necessitated some changes. Under her leadership, it was a year-round program that served African American students at all levels in the Urbana school system. During the school year, there was after-school tutoring for high school students who needed help with their homework. College prep and career readiness programs were subsequently added. On two Fridays a month, there was a 6 to 9 p.m. evening program to help students develop their social skills through discussion of books and films.
During the summer, the Center was open every weekday from 8 to 5. After a prayer and breakfast, there was a discussion of current events that appeared in articles in the newspapers. Then students worked on journals. Students could choose the topic or ask for suggestions they might write on.
At 9:30, students were divided into four grade groups: K-3, 4-6, 7-8, and high school. The groups were offered appropriate sessions in reading and literacy, math, and social and emotional learning. Since this obviously required staffing, four university students in education or early childhood development were hired part-time to lead the sessions.
The last session in the morning was devoted to a team-building exercise that emphasized mutual respect, cooperation, loyalty, and team work.
After that, the students were served lunch. After lunch, the afternoon consisted of arts and crafts, movie/TV time and some other recreational activity such as a field trip or swimming. She invited me to observe what was going on and to interview some of the staff.
The program ran on grants, but there were also modest fees. Those who could not pay could apply for grants from the Local Area Network.
Also impressive was the wide support that Mrs. Mitchell was able to garner: from the city of Urbana, the Urbana School District, the Community Foundation of East Central Illinois, United Way, the VFW post across the street, the local hospitals, and many other people who made donations to the Center. The Champaign County Housing Authority bought the building she used, the former Harley-Davidson dealership on East Main Street, and turned it over to her. The head of the Housing Authority was among those who volunteered their labor to modify and paint the building’s interior after the purchase.
Mrs. Mitchell, who had a master’s degree in social service administration from the University of Chicago, had worked at both the Cunningham Children’s Home and the Mental Health Center of Champaign County before she founded Neighborhood Connections.
She was just such a dedicated and energetic person, and a wonderful conversationalist. I came away from my contact with her and the staff feeling that I had been with people who really cared about the future of African American youth—and actually did something about it. Given our present experience with lethal youth violence, we desperately need so many more Janice Mitchells, or at least people who even approximate her caring and determination to make a difference. To say that she will be missed is an enormous understatement.
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