Corporate partnership inspires kids through mentoring program.

Janette Mascarinas, Compliance Manager at TransUnion, walked into a conference room at the company’s headquarters in downtown Chicago. She smiled when she saw Serenity, a sixth-grader at St. Malachy, a Catholic school on the city’s near west side. Like old friends, both laughed as they said hello before sealing the moment with a special handshake full of intricate maneuvers known only to them.

Mascarinas is Serenity’s mentor match, as part of Mercy Home’s Friends First Workplace-Based Mentoring Program, which supports kids through consistent and structured relationships with corporate partners in Chicago. Experiences like this expose mentees to group and one-on-one opportunities that build on their strengths, develop skills, increase self-esteem, and nurture social relationships to help them reach their full potential.

“It’s great when you feel like you’re making an impact on someone, to help them understand leadership, and think about things to be mindful of.”

Every two weeks, afterschool, Serenity and a group of her peers from St. Malachy meet with their mentors at TransUnion, sharing activities that enrich the mind, body, and spirit.

“For girls at this age, it’s important to have mentors that can give pointers and techniques about how to approach events or certain aspects of their lives,” said Mascarinas. “It’s great when you feel like you’re making an impact on someone, to help them understand leadership, and think about things to be mindful of.”

After the girls took their seats and recited the Friends First pledge on respect and loyalty, Deanna Belland, Marketing Communications Manager at TransUnion, led the group in a presentation on mindfulness. As they focused their attention, mentor matches learned many ways to be mindful using breathing exercises and guided meditation. Along with ways to experience mindful eating, matches also learned about attitudes and concepts that create a foundation of mindfulness, such as patience, trust, acceptance, and letting go.

St. Malachy students having dance sessions at TransUnion

“Mindfulness is about loving yourself, giving yourself space to be who you are, and not getting angry or frustrated,” said Belland. “I’m happy we can give the girls an outlet and let them know they’re not alone.”

Serenity said the mindfulness exercises made her feel peaceful and calm. Even if she did feel a little sleepy, there is one person who always perks her back up.

“I like that Janette pushes me to do better,” she said. “Sometimes, if I feel tired or feel like giving up, Janette will tell me to ‘keep trying’ and ‘don’t give up.’ That feels good.”

According to Mascarinas, the feeling is mutual.

“I love Serenity’s outgoing personality. She is a strong voice within the group. I think she’s come a long way,” said Mascarinas. “She really takes lessons we learned from one session and applies them to the next.”

“Mindfulness is about loving yourself, giving yourself space to be who you are, and not getting angry or frustrated…I’m happy we can give the girls an outlet and let them know they’re not alone.”

This year’s themes for the Friends First Workplace-Based program are leadership and empowerment – two qualities that define TransUnion’s workplace culture, especially when it comes to giving back to the community.

“We have a Good Works program at TransUnion that absolutely encourages and promotes volunteering,” said Mascarinas. “That program really allows us to give back to groups within the community where we live and work, like Mercy Home and Friends First.”

Belland was just as emphatic about the workplace spirt of volunteerism.

“It’s just ingrained in everyone who works at TransUnion,” she said. “Everyone is super on board.”

Now in its second year, the partnership between TransUnion and the Friends First Workplace-Based program is a natural fit, creating a bond that grows stronger with each successive year.

“What I like about Friends First is that they are really concentrated on building the connection between the mentor and mentee. It’s been great getting to know the girls as they grow their leadership skills and recognize their potential,” said Colleen Thiry, Content Strategy Manager at TransUnion. “Being a part of this program for the last two years, it’s been really cool to see the evolution of how the girls have matured, learned important lessons, and taken the program more seriously.”

While the session on mindfulness showed the girls how to find a still, quiet peace within, the following session – a Zumba dance class – was all about having fun, working up a sweat, and moving to a pulsing beat.

Held in TransUnion’s dedicated dance and yoga studio in the company fitness center, the Zumba class was an instant hit. Led by Mascarinas, who also teaches fitness dance classes for her coworkers, the session jumped to life the moment she pushed play.

“The benefits I get from fitness go way beyond health – it’s more holistic. It’s inspiring to bring that to others and show these girls how fitness benefits the body and mind,” she said. “It’s not necessarily about working out. It’s about having fun and dancing. I tell them this is a judgement-free zone.”

Following Mascarinas’s lead, Serenity enthusiastically kept up, staying in rhythm as she grooved alongside her mentor.

“This dance session was so inspirational, and I like that I got to work out,” Serenity said. “It gave me a lot of energy.”

“I came into Friends First knowing that I wanted to give, but I didn’t consider how much I would receive as well.”

Drawing on the previous session, Mascarinas views dancing and mindfulness as two sides of the same coin – both means to an end of achieving clarity.

“When you’re doing your workout, you have a chance to think about things you’re stressed about – things you have to sort out or find a solution to,” she said. “Working out allows yourself time to do that, whether you’re a student at St. Malachy or a coworker at TransUnion.”

Following the dance session, mentor matches cooled down as they discussed how an active lifestyle benefits mental health by decreasing stress, improving sleep, boosting happiness, and increasing brain power. In turn, these benefits can improve academic and work performance. Plus, the potential for making new friends expands, simply by cooperating and forming new bonds with classmates, teammates…or mentors.

While sharing a healthy post-workout meal with her mentee Chasity – who said she loved dancing to Bruno Mars – Amanda Perez, Senior Analyst at TransUnion, reflected on the program.

“I didn’t expect to learn so much from the girls. They help me in so many ways. They really teach me patience,” said Perez, a returning mentor from last year. “I came into Friends First knowing that I wanted to give, but I didn’t consider how much I would receive as well. That’s my favorite thing about Friends First.”

St. Malachy students at TransUnion learning about mindfulness