From left, panelists Katie Bailey, Denise Clarke and Patricia Vance described some of the challenges they faced as they developed professionally.RoundTable photo

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The third cohort of women in Youth Job Center’s WILL program is poised to graduate on Nov. 15. The 26 participants are young women ages 18-25 with a high-school or equivalent degree, working in what would be considered dead-end jobs.

As they progress through the program with support services to help them continue, they transition to getting further education and jobs that promise a future. They are Women Interested in Learning and Livelihoods.

To help keep the women in the 18-month program, “We provide wrap-around services,” said Precious Wright, the WILL Project coordinator at a panel discussion of the project on Oct. 29. The services include helping the young women secure child care or stable housing, assigning each one a successful woman in the community as a mentor.

When the women in the present cohort began the program, the most any of them made was $10 per hour Ms. Wright said. One young woman earning $4.95 per hour plus tips now has a job at $13 per hour. “The average wage is now $12 per hour. They are enrolling in school, transitioning from part-time to full-time status [in jobs] and realizing personal goals like getting into stable housing and paying down debt,” Ms. Wright said.

“These young women who are in low-wage jobs are not anomalies,” said Alecia Wartowski, director of programs at Northwestern University’s Women’s Center.

“Nationally, 9 million single mothers earn less than $25,000 per year. Only a third of them receive child support. Forty-four percent spend half of their money on housing. How are they going to get ahead?” she asked, adding, “Education is a key factor in closing the economic gap. The work that WILL is doing – helping [young women] transition to jobs and getting post-secondary education – will help end this … cycle.”

A panel composed of Patricia Vance, Katie Bailey and Denise Clarke described some of the challenges and support that helped them get where they are.

Ms. Vance served as executive director of CEDA/Neighbors at Work for 24 years and as Township Supervisor for 12 years. Ms. Bailey, a member of the District 65 School Board, consults for non-profit agencies and works with several Big Shoulders Fund high schools in Chicago. Ms. Clarke, an alumna of the second WILL cohort, is a director of District 65’s School Age Child Care programs.

Each was asked to give “advice to your 19-year-old self.”

“Embrace your mistakes,” said Ms. Bailey. She added, “Pick your battles. … Say, ‘Thank you.’ Proof your work. Return phone calls, reply to emails. Listen more. It’s hard to understand somebody else’s background, but if you listen, you can relate to the common thread.”

“Break the generational curse,” said Ms. Clarke. Many women who grow up in single-parent households where the mother has no education tend to repeat the pattern. “Create your own path,” she added.

“Pay attention to the type of jobs you choose to get into,” said Ms. Vance. “It’s OK to say, ‘I can’t do this’ and to start all over again. … Set up networks. Reach back with both hands to bring someone up.”

The Value of Mentoring

Mentoring is a “very important part” of the Youth Job Center’s Women Interested in Learning and Livelihoods (WILL) program, said Precious Wright, WILL project coordinator. “They play an important role to help participants reach their employment, educational, and financial goals. … I am the matchmaker for the mentor/mentee pairings,” she said. Coleen Burrus, alderman of the 9th Ward and senior director of corporate relations for Northwestern University, has been a mentor in the program for three years. The mentees, she said, are “really successful.” As a mentor, she helps with writing a resume, preparing for an interview, writing applications and “life-skills,” she said. “Show up on time; dress appropriately. It’s that extra, added tip to give direction. I can open doors and these other mentors do the same thing. It’s a wonderful program. It would make such a difference if everyone had someone else looking out for them.” Katie Bailey, a member of the District 65 School Board and consultant to not-for-profit organizations in the area, has also been a mentor in the WILL program for three years. Mentoring, she said, is “a volunteer activity that is so important to help young women. Being a mentor is easy – it’s connecting with people. You meet for coffee, go for a walk, talk about a resume, talk about what they want to do, help them make connections and make sure they follow up. … For all of us, it’s hard to envision a change. I feel like you can help people envision a future.” Ms. Bailey said she feels the WILL program fits well with the communitywide Evanston Cradle to Career Initiative, the vision of which is “By the age of 23, all Evanston young adults will be leading productive lives.” Having a career, Ms. Bailey said, “is being able to support your family and to be part of the community.” Anyone wishing to become a mentor to a young woman in the WILL program may contact Ms. Wright at 847-864-5627 or

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...