SMILE Project helps teens realize their potential

SMILE Project helps teens realize their potential

An Illinois congregation’s internship program offers students valuable firsthand workplace experience.

Sherri Daye Scott
Commander Michaus Williams with mentee Alex Wiley, who spent four weeks interning with the Naperville Police.

Commander Michaus Williams with mentee Alex Wiley, who spent four weeks interning with the Naperville Police. (© 2019 Edward Weiland Photography)

© 2019 Edward Weiland Photography


The wildflowers are the first thing you notice when you walk up to DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church in Naperville, Illinois, which was named a Unitarian Universalist Association Breakthrough Congregation this year. The flowers grow tall as an adult in some places and surround the 64-year-old church with color and fragrance as well as movement—thanks to all the butterflies. Floor-to-ceiling windows carry that same energy inside. A brightness and feeling of peace pervade, so it’s no surprise that the atmosphere is all smiles, laughter, and love as church members gather with visitors on the last Sunday of July to celebrate the twenty students and sixteen businesses that took part in DuPage’s 2019 SMILE Project.

SMILE, an acronym for Students, Mentors, Internships with Local Employers, is DuPage’s signature social justice initiative. The four-week internship project matches rising high school sophomores and juniors with local mentors and paid internships over the summer. It is modeled after a similar youth mentoring program run by the Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network (PTMAN) on Chicago’s West Side. Representatives from that group are among those in attendance and were integral in helping DuPage develop SMILE.

As part of the celebration, several students and mentors share their experiences from the pulpit. Metea Valley High School junior Elizabeth Cruz, who interned with David Guy Stevens, an attorney in Aurora, Illinois, is now considering law school. “I learned many things I will carry with me,” she says. “I got to go to court and see the workings there.”

Alex Wiley, a rising junior at Metea Valley, interned with the Naperville Police Department. “I thought I was just going to be filing reports,” he tells the congregation, “but I got to go out on ride-alongs on a daily basis.” His mother, Linda Wiley, shares that her son loved going to work, that he woke up on his own each morning, that she saw him mature over the summer, and that he has been talking about becoming a police officer. “They were so good to him—kind,” she says. “It was his first opportunity to join the workforce, an experience many kids will never get.”

One of Wiley’s mentors, Commander Michaus Williams, speaks about how he views smile as a means to humanize police officers and build positive connections between them and young people. “Alex is now an advocate,” Williams says. “We’ve laid a foundation, and that’s rewarding in itself.”

Before the service wraps up with a teaser performance for an upcoming smile 2020 fundraising concert, smile Project chair Maggie Kivisto shares a reading by the Rev. Patrick O’Neill called “And How are the Children?” Its message of communal responsibility for all children is a reminder why projects like smile are necessary, Kivisto explains. “We must be vigilant,” she says, “to ensure that all the children are well . . . safe, free, educated, happy—and equal.”

DuPage’s SMILE Project is a story of church, business, and school leaders coming together to provide underserved kids in their community with opportunities to “realize their potential, develop a work ethic, and make positive choices for their futures,” according to SMILE’s mission statement. Groundwork for the program was laid in 2014 when the 275-member congregation moved to revive its social justice program. Thirty-five people showed up at that first social justice committee meeting and the greater DuPage community was involved from the start, according to the congregation’s minister at the time, the Rev. Tom Capo.

“Successful social justice committees have a focus determined by the congregation,” Capo says. “That way everyone, in their own way, can get involved.” After a series of surveys and conversations, the congregation voted in 2015 to make racial equality the primary focus of its social justice work and set out to educate itself about racial justice. The church is based 33 miles outside Chicago in Naperville, a community where over 75 percent of residents are white.

To get smart on racial justice, the congregation collectively read the 2012–13 and 2015–16 UUA Common ReadsThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, in addition to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Carol Anderson’s White Rage. They hosted forums on issues of race and engaged with local organizations and ministries, such as PTMAN, which are already deeply involved in combating racial injustice. DuPage held a fundraiser for PTMAN’s Youth Summer Internship Initiative, which offers students four weeks of paid work sponsored by churches and other partners. After learning there was a similar need in its community and nearby Kane County, DuPage was moved to develop its own youth mentoring program.

“School leaders said youth of color, in particular, weren’t getting a lot of attention,” Capo says. “We’re talking the kids who could use a hand up, who were academically okay but could use some mentoring to help them excel.”

DuPage’s social justice committee, led by co-chairs Cheryl Clayton and Ken Koresch, launched SMILE in 2018 to address that need. Students work four hours a day, four days a week for four weeks and earn a $592 honorarium at the end. DuPage funds the program through individual pledges, fundraising 5K runs, special collections, and concerts. Congregants also volunteer as career coaches to provide tips on interviewing, dress codes, and various workplace situations, in addition to conducting weekly site visits and sending regular notes of encouragement to students.

“People are open to doing anything they can do,” says Lynn Clark, a member of the DuPage community.

Employers are recruited through personal connections and cold calls. Sixteen businesses participated in 2019, including a dentist office, a pet shop, a certified public accountant, a bookstore, a beauty spa, and two museums.

Naperville’s Community Career Center has hosted SMILE interns two years in a row and has seen benefits both professional and personal. Its 2018 intern, for example, ended up saving the center money thanks to his IT prowess, says Kimberly White, the center’s executive director. “I look at it as an opportunity to help students who otherwise would not get the chance,” White says. “You have a young mind for a month who’s ready to take in everything. They’re learning something in that month: how to treat people; hands-on, real-world experience; how to be a team player; the importance of showing up on time.”

To participate, students are nominated by teachers and administrators. “It’s easier for some kids to find jobs than others,” says Jennifer Rowe, executive director of student equity for Indian Prairie School District 204, “so we hand-selected students who we thought would be perfect candidates, open to relationships with adults. A lot of kids need that extra support. Sometimes as a school we forget we don’t have to do it all.”

Thirty students have gone through SMILE, including the ten from its inaugural 2018 class. To date, DuPage has raised more than $30,000 to fund the program and intends to raise enough to sponsor twenty-five to thirty students in 2020.

“Pulling off something like SMILE requires a tremendous amount of organization, communication, and connections,” Clark says. “Your congregation has to be extraordinarily committed to fundraising and supporting the program.” It is that commitment that earned DuPage UU Church its designation as a 2019 UUA Breakthrough Congregation, as well as gratitude from the families who participated.

“SMILE taught him a work ethic,” says Irene Hall of her grandson, Donovan, who interned at Dog Patch Pet & Feed. “He learned to be responsible, to do a good job. SMILE gave him a better understanding of what’s out there. Before he wanted to be in the military. Now he’s considering other options.”

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