It was almost two years ago that Madeleine Tardif, ’18, met Idalis, a sunny and determined girl who loves roller skating and squash and has the kind of nurturing personality that younger children naturally admire.
As a member of the Law School’s community service organization Neighbors, Tardif had signed up to mentor at-risk youth at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, which meant assisting with homework, helping junior high students navigate Chicago’s high school application process, and teaching mini-civics lessons through the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago’s Edward J. Lewis II Lawyers in the Classroom program. Idalis was assigned to be her mentee.
Right away, Tardif saw a special kid: balanced, kind, composed—and open to a little extra adult guidance. Together, Tardif and Idalis have researched Chicago high schools and organized Idalis’s search, talking about upcoming open houses or entrance exams. Sometimes they work on math homework or go to a movie or a skating or squash event. This fall, their work paid off: Idalis enrolled as a freshman at a local high school that fits her interests and needs.
“I would hazard a guess that nobody here has gotten to where they are without having some sort of positive role model or mentor—I certainly haven’t,” said Tardif, who now serves as Neighbor’s president. “I think it’s important to serve that function for other people. It’s really rewarding, and it’s just a good thing to do.”
Friday night, the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club honored Neighbors with a Volunteer of the Year Award at HPNC’s annual gala, highlighting the importance of such mentoring relationships. At the event, Tardif and Idalis even performed a role-reversal skit, playing each other in a re-enactment of the high school search process. HPNC, a 108-year-old community center, offers early childhood classes, an after-school program, a full-day summer camp, teen mentoring, athletics, and theater.
“The Neighbors organization has been the backbone of our mentoring program for years,” said Kendalyn Diroll, manager of HPNC's Match-Up! Mentoring program. “They are here for us year after year and have made a deeply positive impact on our kids. We are all so grateful for their support.”
Tardif said Neighbors students were really excited about the award, one of two given out that evening. The other went to the University of Chicago Service League.
“We were unbelievably flattered,” Tardif said of the award. “It was so generous of them.”
Neighbors also sends regular volunteers to tutor students at Kenwood Academy High School and runs an annual blood drive and an annual day of service. In addition to homework help and mentoring, Law School students who visit HPNC join in on group activities and teach mini-lessons about the law. Recently, Neighbors volunteers worked with HPNC students on a Bill of Rights exercise, talking to them about the rights that matter most to them and how constitutions vary among different countries.
“It was a really fun discussion—education was something they thought was really important,” said Sarah Saxton, ’19, Neighbors’ HPNC coordinator. “We talked about government structure as well. One kid thought the government should be able to regulate everything, others thought they should leave it alone. They thought about differences between what the framers of the Constitution would have wanted and what they’d want the Constitution to say now. It was a really interesting discussion. When you get the kids engaged like that, those are the best moments.”
Last spring, Neighbors volunteers spent several weeks preparing for and then running a mock trial with kids at HPNC.
“It’s great seeing what they come up with and how into it they get,” Saxton said. “In a lot of ways, the law can feel like an enigma, and it can feel scary when you don’t know how it works. I think it is so important to bring (an understanding of) the law to these kids. As law students, we’re really just a few years older than them, and we’re hanging out and teaching them what we’re learning and why we’re excited about it. It makes the law less of an enigma.”
Neighbors was founded in 1993 by David Hoffman, ’95, who was bothered by the 10-foot chainlink fence that, at the time, separated the Law School from the Woodlawn neighborhood. A lower iron fence now marks the edges of the Law School’s parking lot.
“It was an unfortunate barrier between communities,” said Hoffman, now a partner at Sidley Austin and a lecturer at the Law School. “I thought the Law School should have a relationship with its immediate neighbor to the south.”
He began working with local community leaders—including local school principals and a local YWCA—to find ways in which law students could lend a hand. He sought students who were willing to make a commitment by signing up for at least two hours of service a week for an entire school year, and he emphasized their role as helpers, not experts looking to swoop in with quick fixes.
“The idea was: this is their community, and to the extent that there are problems, they are going to know the solutions better than us,” he said. “We wanted to cross that barrier as neighbors to offer some additional helping hands, in the ways that worked for them.”
Although the organization has evolved in 24 years, expanding beyond the Woodlawn neighborhood to other nearby communities, the central values remain the same.
“It’s really important to be involved in the community in which you’re located,” Tardif said. “We spend so much time in Hyde Park, and I think we get more out of our time here when we do that.”
It’s also nice, she added, to engage with other law students outside of the Law School—and to re-discover the law through the eyes of children.
Hoffman said he’s delighted by Neighbors’ ongoing contributions, and he was thrilled to learn that HPNC was honoring those efforts.
“I remember sitting at graduation and thinking, ‘I hope this stays around,’” Hoffman said. “I’m proud of the organization—and I’m really proud of these students.”