Why I mentor


Some days, we all need to pause, take a step back, and view the bigger picture in order to see the world just a little more clearly. I have a few friends who help me do that. One is in the fourth grade. The other two are 10 and 14.

When I was a college sophomore, I signed up to volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. At the time, I was a theatre major minoring in pranking and general shenanigans. But the frazzled social worker at the organization didn’t ask too many questions; instead, she slid a brochure across the desk, and told me I could start meeting my new little sister at her school during lunch.

A year later, when we graduated to after school hangouts, she and I would troll the aisles of Wal-Mart, pointing out all the things we would buy if we had money, or visit the local pet shop to play with the puppies. I let her pick out the movie for our first slumber party, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which resulted in a really great night’s sleep for both of us (not).

Clearly, I was really good at this big sister thing.

For three years, I’d finish up class and head to my little sister’s house, loud and filled with smoke from the kitchen where her mom baked fresh tortillas and papusas. Her family only spoke Spanish, which was perfect since I was studying French and grew up in south Alabama. Somehow, we bonded over time as I made phone calls to the school, interpreted bills that arrived in the mail, and gave rides to the social worker or doctor’s office.

They gave me an honest glimpse into the world of a Salvadorian family doing their best to adjust to life in a warm but entirely foreign culture.

Fast forward a few years. I was winding up a smoky stairwell in a corner of Southeast DC that I’d spent my early adulthood entirely avoiding. It was the kind of neighbourhood you don’t tell your mom you’re visiting until after the fact. I felt more than a little aware of my sparkly cardigan and snakeskin purse as I made my way through a housing complex where residents have to earn less than $7,000 a year to qualify to live there.

I looked around at the cracked walls, the bugs, and the mattresses on the floor and realized I’d never spent much time in places like this before. But standing next to me was my new little sister. Her family greeted me with a warm smile and an open door into their home. We laughed when we realized that our sisters shared the same name. And that was it. We were on the same team. We were each other’s people.

The highlight of the next two years was my friendship with this teenaged girl and her family. We passed the seasons side-by-side, trick or treating on Capitol Hill, shopping for new school clothes, sharing giant chocolate chip cookies from our favourite corner cafe, celebrating birthdays and holidays and average Saturday mornings. When I made the move from DC to Atlanta, the only time I cried was when I broke the news to her and her younger sister.

It took a few months to settle into life in a new city, but it wasn’t long before the itch to mentor began to surface. These days, I spend many of my Saturdays hanging out with one of the sweetest fourth graders you’ll ever meet. She’s my walking buddy on the BeltLine trail that winds through Atlanta, and I’m her sidekick to go meet Santa. I make her tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and she makes me homemade jewelry. She knows my friends by name, and I love her family. We share whatever we have with each other, even if it’s just a stick of chewing gum.

Over and over, she has helped nudge my head upwards when I get a little too self-focused (which inevitably happens a LOT when you’re in your 20s). She continually reminds me to be kind, to be generous, to be joyful. She makes those things look easy. I can’t wait to see the woman she’s going to grow into, and I feel so privileged to have a seat at the table in her life.

When I started out as a big sister when I was 19, I didn’t have any concept of what that might look like over time. I’m sure that in the back of my mind, I thought I was doing a favour for someone else. I didn’t realize that I was being given the immeasurable gift of joining in with the lives of others — others who have had much more to teach me than I could have ever taught them. Others who constantly and gently clarify that life isn’t actually about me, and that the real goodness comes from those unexpected moments of joy that happen just from being together.

Mentoring has become a core value that is so close to my heart, I can’t really picture my life without it. And I wouldn’t want to. I could only wish this same richness for everyone else.

If you’re not a mentor in some capacity, today might be the day to change that. Because, yes, there are kids out there who need someone to look up to. But you just might find that you need them, too.

Photo (Flickr CC) by Brook.