A Mentor Can Make All the Difference

Every few weeks, Chicago attorney and entrepreneur Curtis Tarver has an important, can’t-miss meeting. The busy father of two young children picks up food and prepares for an agenda that might include anything from popular songs to favorite teachers or academic obstacles.

Tarver is a mentor to four middle school students through Big Shoulders Fund. Knowing some of the children in the program may lack a connection with an African-American male role model, he is committed to consistency. “If I say I’m going to show up, I show up,” he said. “Even without a specific script, it matters just that you’re there.”

Tarver is a big supporter of efforts to diversify the Big Shoulders organization, so when Big Shoulders President and CEO Joshua Hale mentioned the need to recruit more African-American men as mentors, Tarver organized an event at his South Loop brewery, Vice District Brewing. He invited a couple dozen friends with whom he regularly breakfasts to meet with Hale and Co-Chairman John Canning.

Curtis Tarver and mentoring group at Vice District Brewing“He has put his foot on the gas pedal for this,” said Hale, adding that many of the men Tarver invited to the event are now involved in Big Shoulders. “They’re doing it because they’re nice and civic-minded individuals, but also because a guy like Curtis is so well thought of, they thought, ‘If Curtis is involved, I should be involved as well.’”

Tarver said Big Shoulders Fund’s programming and purpose made it an easy sell to the group. They agreed, “It’s important for [the students] to see someone who looks like them and who can say to them, ‘I came from the same neighborhood you come from,’” Tarver explained. “It makes it a little more real for them.”

His own connection to Catholic schools goes back to childhood. “I’ve always been passionate about Catholic education. It had a big impact on my life,” said Tarver, who grew up in Morgan Park and attended Marian Catholic High School until his parents could no longer afford it. The transition he had to make after leaving Catholic school reinforced his desire to be involved with an organization that makes it possible for financially struggling families to keep their kids in a Catholic school.

After high school, Tarver graduated from Iowa State University and earned a law degree from the University of Iowa. He worked for a midsize law firm and in former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office before starting his own law firm. Two years ago, he followed another passion and opened Vice District Brewing with a neighbor.

He started mentoring students through Big Shoulders at St. Elizabeth in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, the school his uncles and father also attended. He said the importance of a faith-based education was clear to his family even during times of hardship. “They were in housing projects, but they knew what they had to do to send their kids to St. Elizabeth,” he said.

For Tarver, mentoring is a way for him to repay those who saw something in him. “I always had someone who took me aside and said, ‘Hey, you’re a smart kid with a bad attitude’ and then helped keep me on the right path,” said Tarver, who lives in North Kenwood with his wife and children. “But these kids are far brighter than I was at their age. I’d be doing the entire world a disservice if I didn’t help out these kids, who are going to do really great things.”