Before I start this month’s post, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank the staff from Girls Inc for recognizing indymillennial recently, and I appreciate it if you’re reading now because of their posts!
As many of you probably know, January is National Mentoring Month. I’ve wanted to post about mentoring for awhile now, but I think the topic is often over-blogged, especially from the perspective of a professional. Read any of the current literature, and the findings are the same. Mentoring positively impacts kids’ lives in various ways. We know there are academic, social, emotional, and so many other benefits to kids if they have a caring adult in their lives. So why is it that staffers from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana have to stand outside in the cold in order to convince people to do this? We can prove with research studies that mentoring is effective, but that’s as far as professional academic analysis will take us. In order for mentoring to really “work”, there’s something almost magical that happens in the relationship. Mentoring can be a formal decision and commitment, or it can be a more informal, organic relationship. For mentoring nonprofits, the relationships between volunteers and youth have to be both. How can an organization strike a balance between personal and professional? I struggled to write this blog because I initially wanted to share a list of tips and tricks for professionals. However, sometimes, I think that the best way for an organization to learn is to hear about the personal decisions that lead their volunteers to commit to a mentoring relationship. I’ve touched on the idea before that philanthropy is something that is extremely personal, and I think this is most evident in mentoring relationships. Service is a huge part of who I am, and nothing is more personal than having/being a mentor. This is my mentoring story:
Growing up, I was fortunate to have an amazing mentor. My high school choir director is an incredible man, and he spent countless hours listening to me. I told him things I didn’t feel I could confide in anyone else, and he always affirmed me while gently reminding me to look at a situation from other people’s perspectives. The most important advice he ever gave me was “fearlessly be yourself.” I really held on to this; as a teenager, that was probably one of the most difficult things to do, but he contributed strongly to my sense of self-esteem and self-worth. We had dinner several months ago, and I am so thankful that he still supports me and is proud of the things I do. Our relationship was never formalized by any program in school; it was all personal and progressed naturally. I always hold onto my experience with him because I would have been the last kid to “need” a mentor. I could never claim that my parents did anything less than a wonderful job raising me. (They read this blog, so hi Mom & Dad.) I would never have been labeled “at risk.” I was a straight A student and never had a detention in my life. I benefited so much from having a mentor, but no one would have ever known this if our relationship hadn’t developed. No one would have matched me or put me in a program. That’s the same reason I sometimes dislike “professional” mentoring. The “at risk” label sometimes implies there might be something “wrong” with the youth, and it even implies that something must be wrong before a child “needs” a mentor. Volunteers must be taught that mentoring isn’t about fixing; it’s about listening and developing a relationship.
One of the most important lessons I learned from my mentor was how to give back and be a mentor myself. I spent a year mentoring incarcerated youth as an AmeriCorps member, and it was very difficult to have those relationships come to an end after such a short period of time. Research tells us that for a real impact to be made, mentoring relationships often must last at least 18 months or longer. This is the point in time where I made the first conscious decision to become a mentor. I wanted to commit to a mentoring relationship for longer than one year. Because I didn’t have many opportunities to develop a natural mentoring relationship with someone younger than me, I decided to seek out an organization to help me fulfill this desire. However, I had just started my first “real” job using my degree from Ball State, and I wasn’t certain that I could commit to mentoring when I was working somewhere I didn’t intend to stay for a lifetime. I was also researching grad schools, and it became very real to me that I might move away from Indiana to pursue my degree in another state. This would have been the wrong time for me to make a mentoring commitment in my life. I set a goal to become a mentor as soon as I thought the time was right.
Fast forward to May 2009. I made the decision to attend IUPUI’s SPEA program for my MPA. I had returned to Indianapolis after living in Delaware & Madison counties from 2002-2008. I was eager to start serving the city, and I knew I would be comfortable staying in the city for at least two years. I approached Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana, and I told them that I was ready to be a Big! They truly listened to me during my interview process, and they asked me some TOUGH personal questions! (I sure didn’t expect to talk about my entire dating history with someone I had just met!) I think those questions really gave them insight into who I am. I’m sure they listened just as well to my Little and her mom, and this helped them make a great match for us. One month later, I was matched with my then 11 year old Little Sister. It sounds silly, but as soon as I saw her wearing her Hannah Montana shirt and grinning at me, I knew they had made a great choice for both of us. We’ve done quite a few activities together from making pizza and playing Wii at my apartment, to visiting the Indiana Historical Society, going to an Indiana Fever game, shopping at the mall, to taking a tour of where my classes are at IUPUI, to trick-or-treating (both dressed as Taylor Swift from different parts of the “You Belong with Me” video), and this past summer, we even went on the BBBSCI trip to Chicago together. I’ve watched her basketball games, eaten lunch with her at school, and we’ve made an annual tradition of going to the Fishers Freedom Festival together. The Freedom Festival is something I loved growing up as a kid, and I’m glad she loves it, too. She doesn’t know this, but one of my favorite things is when we’re in the car, and we sing whatever song happens to be on Radio Disney at the moment. (My other favorite memory of her is when I told her I would be coming to her school for lunch, and she got on Google Maps while we were on the phone to find directions from my house to the school. Did I mention she’s smart?) We’ve had conversations ranging from the silly to the very serious. She poses questions about what she’s learned in D.A.R.E. asks what my opinion is on where she should go to college, and tells me about the nice and not so nice kids at school. We’re talking about all those “important things” that a mentor should talk about, but every single conversation has happened naturally. BBBSCI might have matched us, but those conversations are all ours!
I will say that there are two very important people to our mentoring relationship. One person is her mother. If I didn’t have a strong, trusting relationship with her, there is absolutely no way that I could have such a great relationship with her daughter! I’m thankful that her mother trusts me enough to share information about her family & daughter that helps me become a better mentor. The second person is our Match Support Specialist, Vanessa. I firmly believe that all “professional” mentors need someone like her to guide the process. Vanessa has been a valuable resource to us, and her particular expertise has helped me understand my Little Sister better. This kind of support is crucial for a mentor to have; sometimes we simply need someone to talk through an idea or a tough issue with. Vanessa has been nothing but kind, reassuring, and supportive of our relationship.
As my Little Sister’s 13th birthday approaches in a few weeks, we’re already past that 18 month mark, and the professional in me is cheering. I’ve heard people say that we must find volunteers who are willing to commit “at least x amount of time to a child.” This is a professional “best practice” that I think requires some personal attention. While I do agree with the literature that indicates short-term relationships can be damaging to a child, professionals must recognize that good mentoring relationships grow gradually over time. When I first began mentoring my Little Sister, I knew that I could commit at least the amount of time that I was in graduate school. What I didn’t know was that every time I saw her, I would learn more about her and her family, and I would grow more and more attached to her. Now, I can’t imagine ending the relationship before she graduates from high school. I want to see her graduate, and I am committed to helping her get into college. I’ll graduate right around the same time that I was matched with her two years ago, and I can’t wait to celebrate both events with her.
How do I know for sure that we’ll stay matched? I suppose I don’t, but something she said to me made sure that I won’t be the one to give up on her, ever. She mentioned to me that she has three theme songs for her life. I couldn’t wait for her to tell me what they were. One of the songs was, of course, a Taylor Swift song.