When the pandemic hit and the world shut down, Guadalupe Gomez had the most difficult choice of her life to make: continue her passionate career at a local daycare or stay at home with her then fourth-grade son to facilitate his e-learning. In some ways, it wasn’t a choice—there was no one else to stay home with him and no “big kid” chairs at the daycare if her son came to work with her. Most importantly, her son needed a healthy space to learn.

“I identified as an educator,” Lupe said. “I never thought I would be a stay-at-home mom. So for me not being able to work . . . it took a lot to say ‘I’m going to set my career aside and be home with him.’”

Lupe and her family moved to Brighton Park five years ago. She kept to herself, mostly, only making appearances within her community to take her son to and from school at Columbia Explorers Academy, a Chicago Public Schools kindergarten through eighth-grade public school. Although warm and change-seeking by nature, she didn’t have intentions to get deeply involved in her community. She didn’t know there was a place for her.

Later in 2021, as kids started returning to school in person and the pandemic droned on, shifting in form, Lupe was approached by an acquaintance she recognized, the coordinator of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council’s (BPNC) Parent Mentor Program. The opportunity that was then laid out for her would fill every void the pandemic had opened: a volunteer position in the school, spending two hours per day helping out in a kindergarten classroom.

“To me, it was a no-brainer,” Lupe said. “This is literally what I was meant to do, working with kids—it’s my destiny.”

Thereafter, she became a parent mentor in her son’s old kindergarten teacher’s classroom. Every morning she shows up at 8am and helps prepare the kids’ breakfasts. She helps them open their milk cartons and has morning conversations about their days and weekends, gently asserting herself as a trusted adult presence.

“Parent mentors are a second set of eyes, ears, and hands in the classroom,” Lupe said. “We do one-on-one work with kids who need it most. You want them to be able to feel comfortable. You want them to know that if they need it, they can ask for help.”

Then comes a math activity, followed by art class. At times she helps grade papers or check morning folders—anything the teacher needs a hand with. Whether it’s getting ready for the hallway or reminding them to sit in ready position, she’s always there to kindly remind them of the rules. This is the very work Lupe is trained to do, having earned an associate degree in early childhood education. She flows so intuitively in the classroom that the teacher is often shocked she knew what to do without direction.

Lupe says the most rewarding part of her role is seeing the kids grow and build confidence.

She makes it a point to say, “I love what you did,” when a student accomplishes something, to make sure they know they’re worth something.

Having desperately missed her career, being a parent mentor connected Lupe back to her passion. She hopes that someday soon it will act as a stepping stone to finding full-time work in CPS schools.

The Parent Mentor Program is an open-door opportunity for parents in the Brighton Park community, just like Lupe. The parent mentors come from diverse backgrounds—many are immigrants—and 70% never finished formal schooling. But the program’s support has allowed many of them to continue their education and become certified teacher assistants.

Lupe had visited BPNC, a United Way community partner leading our Brighton Park Neighborhood Network, once before for help filling out a medical insurance form. She knew their services were important. Now, though, Lupe sees the organization as an inextricable pillar of the Brighton Park community.

“I wanted to make a change, but I didn’t think one person could do it,” she said. “I didn’t know BPNC had space for someone like me to create that change. Now, I’m part of a community that I see is united.”

Learn more about how our Neighborhood Networks support families and students and unite communities.

By Tate Samata, AmeriCorps Multimedia Journalist