Growing up in the Roseland community of the south side of Chicago, Shelton Smith has fond memories of his childhood.
He remembers a safe community, where he and friends and family could go skating or bowling or just go to a local park.
But a lot has changed since his childhood. Some Chicago communities have fallen on hard times, with businesses leaving and poverty and crime increasing. As Smith watched those struggles unfold in the places he knew, he felt he needed to do something to try to help people affected by those changes.
“I felt there had to be a way for me to empower and give back to others,” says Smith, who is today a senior client associate in RBC Wealth Management’s Lakeshore (Illinois) branch.
So 21 years ago, Smith joined Big Brothers and Big Sisters as a mentor. Several years later, he got involved with the Sigma Beta Club youth auxiliary group, which gave him an opportunity to mentor young African-American men in the Chicago community. He now coordinates the club’s mentoring program for the Illinois Chapter.
Sigma Beta Club places an emphasis on academic success, and for the last several years Smith has organized college tours for young men in the program, who are also given ACT test preparation, educational tutoring, scholarships and other resources.
“I want to help these young people understand that they have to be the change they want to see,” Smith says. “And even when you get out, you have to give back.”
Additionally, the Sigma Beta Club aims to get its members thinking about what it means to be part of a community, both on a local and global level. Through initiatives like donation drives for people in impoverished countries or local volunteer opportunities the young men in the Sigma Beta Club learn about leadership and serving their communities.
Shelton Smith mentors young African-American men in Chicago through the Sigma Beta Club youth auxiliary group. (Photo credit: © Darryl Earl)
Every year, Smith helps organize “Manhood 101,” a conference put on a by a local nonprofit called Hope For a Better Tomorrow. He asks his Sigma Beta Club mentees to participate, too.
“Manhood 101” provides an opportunity for young men of color to learn college, career and life skills from positive role models in the local community, according to founder and organizer Richard Brown.
Those goals makes it a natural fit for Smith’s involvement.
“Shelton and I share mutual interest in seeing young men of color do better and have more opportunities,” Brown says. “Shelton echoes the sentiment of Hope For a Better Tomorrow in his belief that young men will do better when they see better. Finding positive role models, such as Shelton, inspires young men to explore the world of possibilities that awaits them.”
Shelton Smith leads Sigma Beta Club participants on a college tour.
Over the last 12 years of his involvement with the Sigma Beta Club, Smith estimates that several hundred young men have gone through the club’s mentoring program. He’s watched as many of those participants in the program have gone to college, succeeded and come back to the Chicago community looking for ways to help out, just like he did years ago.
“They come back and ask me, ‘How can I help? How can I be a part?’” Smith says. “That means all the world to me.”
It means a lot to other people, as well. In 2016, Smith received a letter from former First Lady Michelle Obama, who knew Smith from her days in Chicago. She had been contacted by a colleague of Smith’s, who wrote to update her on his continued work in the Chicago community.
“Our strength as a country and our ability to shape our future depends on passionate Americans who dedicate themselves to improving their home communities,” Obama wrote. “Your example of service shows once again that each of us can make a difference for those around us.”
Smith says he was moved when he read the letter.
“Michelle Obama took the time to acknowledge me for not giving up on the city of Chicago,” he says. “I’m so grateful for that.”
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