Jaylen already knows what he wants to be when he grows up. But unlike other 11-year-olds, his reason behind his chosen profession shows an empathetic maturity far beyond his years.

“I want to be a surgeon, or some other kind of doctor because I want to help people,” he said. “My mom has a disability, and sometimes I wish I could just fix that automatically.”

His mother’s severe arthritis and osteoporosis limit what she can do with Jaylen. However, she stays active in her son’s life in other ways, like joining online groups that offer resources for single parents like herself. That’s how she found Mercy Home’s Friends First mentoring program. Since Jaylen’s father is not around, she wanted him to have a male role model in his life.

“My mom recommended the Friends First program to me,” said Jaylen. “I’m a shy person. I got involved to break out of my shyness and meet new people.”

Jaylen was paired with mentor Eric Wu, and couldn’t be happier. Together, they’ve bonded over basketball, gone bowling, and visited Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, the Lincoln Park Zoo, and the Art Institute.

“Eric is an outgoing person and he’s very friendly. He’s not selfish and he really cares about others,” said Jaylen. “He’s taught me to not be shy, and that I can help others out. He’s taught me that I can do a lot of things if I put my mind to it.”

Jaylen at RushTo help Jaylen achieve his dream of becoming a doctor, Eric organized a face-to-face interview between Jaylen and Dr. Jennifer Mo at Rush University Medical Center’s Department of Immunology.

Together, Jaylen and Eric came up with interview questions about what it takes to become a doctor. Jaylen interviewed Dr. Mo at the hospital, when she wasn’t on call, in an actual examining room, surrounded by medical instruments, scales, computers, and other equipment doctors use to treat patients. He even sat in the doctor’s chair.

“It was so cool! I was just like ‘Wow,’ ” Jaylen said. “They had little colors outside the room so the doctors know which room to go into. Dr. Mo said she had to learn every bone in the body. That’s a lot of bones!”

Jaylen said he loved learning about the body’s cardiovascular system, particularly how blood in the fingertips helps people feel. “It’s a whole cycle of things going around,” he said. “The same blood from your fingertips goes right back to your heart.”

Eric, who works in corporate sales and operations with MillerCoors, is a co-chair on the associate board of the Chinese American Service League. At a Wintrust Bank networking event, Eric learned about Mercy Home. Soon after, he attended a Friends First service day and signed up as a mentor.

“I view mentoring as a give and a gift,” he said. “I’m learning how to understand folks and how I can become more empathetic. I learned very quickly that you don’t have to do some extravagant activity. It’s more about time spent with the mentee.”

Eric and Jaylen have also bonded over a shared interest in Greek mythology. “There’s an intellectual curiosity that goes along with that interest – asking why things are the way they are versus assuming that’s how it is,” said Eric.

“My favorite Greek God is Poseidon,” said Jaylen. “I like him because he and I are alike. He has a temper and so do I, but I try to control it. I also like him is because he likes the water. I like the water, too, even though I can’t swim. But I’m trying to learn.”

This determination to overcome obstacles, Eric says, speaks volumes about Jaylen’s character.

“He’s willing to try different things that are out of his initial comfort zone. Not everyone is like that,” Eric said. “Even if he doesn’t like it, he’s willing to at least give it a go, knowing that we’re there to support him.”

This impressive level of support, Eric says, is the hallmark of Friends First.

“The reason why Friends First runs so well is that they’ve been around for a long time, but they also concentrate on real, tangible life activities, not just tutoring,” Eric said. “I tell my friends all the time, if you want to make a big difference, you should consider joining the Friends First program.”

Even Jaylen understands the value of Friends First. “It’s important, because if you have a mentor like Eric, you have someone who cares,” he said. “You get to learn all kinds of new things, and giggle, and have fun.”

Now that Jaylen’s perspectives are broadening, a new goal is rising on his horizon: medical school. “It sounds hard,” he said. “But I think I’ll be up for the challenge.”

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