Constituent Spotlight: Kelly Fair
Mentoring founder builds communication skills in young girls
Empowering low-income, girls surrounded by the violence of the city seems like a complex sociological issue that only behavioral scientists are capable of solving.
But Kelly Fair thinks it’s quite simple: teach young girls communication skills, open up their world to career possibilities and foster in them a sense of trust.
The remarkable success of her organization, Polished Pebbles Girls Mentoring Program, testifies to the genius of her theory. Polished Pebbles currently serves over 500 girls ages 7 to 17 from the south and west side of Chicago. In 2011, her organization was invited to attend the National Mentoring Summit at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. A program mentee, Deneen Borner, then a 15 year-old freshman at Harlan Community Academy High School, introduced first lady Michelle Obama at the summit.
Fair understands how essential it is to develop communication skills in order to succeed and maintain healthy relationships. She grew up as a shy child who often knew the answers in class but would never speak up.
“I was not a good communicator, and I didn’t see myself as a leader,” said Fair, who earned a master’s degree in speech pathology and audiology from the University of Iowa. “I was insecure and worried about how my hair looked that day, or if I answered correctly, I worried what the boys would think or what the girls would say.”
Only in college did she begin to accept her leadership ability and soon discovered the importance of communication skills and self-esteem.
“I decided to work with girls starting in elementary schools to develop their skills as early as possible,” she said. “I start with teaching basic life skills that everyone needs—smile, say hello, how to introduce yourself to someone new.”
Fair soon realized she was dealing with girls suffering from a high level of trauma.
“It’s the reality of their everyday lives—they’re angry with their parents, teachers and their peers. I get them to start thinking about their future career—who in America doesn’t want to make money and be a success? So the program has a career development piece. We partner with businesses to expose the girls to different careers, including traditionally non-female careers like sports management.”
Business partners that serve as host mentoring sites include Bloomingdale's Department Stores, Microsoft, Blue Cross Blue Shield Illinois, the Chicago Sky professional basketball team, the Illinois Institute of Technology, ThoughtWorks software company, and the Illinois Welding School.
“The girls even get hands-on work experience,” said Fair. “The communication skills they develop can be put into practice in their everyday lives. They learn how to resolve conflicts with peers and teachers through good communication skills. “
Polished Pebbles also partners with Chicago Public Schools, University of Chicago Charter Schools and three Chicago Housing Authority communities. She believes it’s important for the program to remain in the communities it currently serves.
“It’s a trust issue with children,” she said. “Because they’ve been traumatized in their home and community, it’s hard for them to form trusting relationships. A question we often hear is: ‘Are you going to be here next year?’ They need to know we’re here for the long-haul and won’t suddenly disappear from their lives next year. That’s how you build lasting, trusting relationships. But we need resources to maintain our program and to sustain our relationship with the community. When funding for programs like ours get cut, it undercuts trust as well.”
Fair said her vision is to expand the concept of Polished Pebbles by training other organizations to duplicate her mentoring program.
“We’re working to measure quantitatively the results of our program. Once we document our success record, our programs can be replicated. We’re also developing standards and best practices so all the organizations involved in the future can support one another.”
More information about Polished Pebbles is at www.polishedpebbles.com.