A high school graduate accepted to a four-year college, a change of plans – military service instead of college, all derailed by a serious car accident resulting in the need for long term medical care.
To my mentee’s credit, she eventually picked herself up and started working a series of jobs that left her unsatisfied emotionally and financially wanting. It is at this point we were introduced.
The first hurdle was how to effectively communicate. After several missteps, we figured out that texting was the most effective and timely way to get and stay in touch. Our first in-person meeting was a revelation. She was enormously talkative and willing to share information about herself. Her dreams and goals, varied and hard to define, spilled out of her like a river. A better job, the police academy, taking courses, enrolling in college – all possibilities being considered.
My biggest challenge was to stay short of the mentor “line” and not step into parenting mode. Mentoring is not parenting – I’ve learned to be patient and a better listener so that I can support the decisions made by my mentee.
After discussing my mentee’s interest in going to college, we attended an information session at Gwynedd Mercy University. The faculty expressed much interest in my mentee and looked forward to meeting with her to further discuss her interests and possible enrollment. To me, this appeared to be a wonderful opportunity, but for my mentee was just not the right fit. While I struggled with her decision I had to support and appreciate her wishes.
A short time later, after a brief conversation with a branch manager of a local bank and the bank’s president, I asked my mentee if she were interested in interviewing for an entry level position. There were multiple steps and false starts along the way, but the result was a position that doubled her salary, provided a full benefit package and a path forward. An unintended consequence is the possible new mentor my mentee gained. The first person with whom she interviewed, who started in the same position, who went to school at night saw something in my mentee and is now providing inspiration to her.
For me, the most inspirational part of this mentoring experience is that my mentee did it all by herself. A small hand up is all she needed to show who she is and what she is capable of achieving.
From the moment I met my 42-year-old mentee, she has been eager to get working on her life and keep in touch with me regularly. She reaches out to me often through texting, sometimes just to say “hello” with accompanying emojis that give me an idea how her day is going. I find myself checking in with her, too.
She never misses an opportunity to get together in person even when it means hopping on one more bus at the end of a long shift at work. She usually arrives at our meetings with her backpack bulging with personal belongings (a holdover from days spent living in a shelter) and sometimes carries large containers of leftovers from the kitchen where she works at her new part-time job. She loves cooking meals for family – she lives with 14 others in her cousins’ home and wants to make sure the children are well fed – there are eight children under the age of seven. Over the months we’ve met at restaurants, coffee shops, outdoor cafes and even at the bank of computers at ECS in center city to do some career research. We enjoy easy conversation and she tells me that our meetings give her a chance to hear herself think and focus on her life – something she is unable to do on her own. Her living arrangements are temporary – she sleeps in her cousin’s living room so we make sure our meeting spaces are as tranquil as possible.
Since we first met, I’ve noticed that she has lost weight, has added a few trendy outfits to her closet and has restyled her hair quite a bit. I see her confidence emerging in these changes. She seems to be very slowly sorting out the chaos in her life and trying to put her self back together for her two sons, ages 12 and 13 who are in the custody of their father. This is a situation in which she has the most regret – having lost the ability to care for her sons – one of which is autistic. She visits the boys every Sunday and has plans for this weekend to take them to the Art Museum.
Her goal is to have her own apartment one day where they can spend time together. She shares with me the photos and videos on her phone as I sense she is reliving moments when her life was more stable. There is a photo of her in cap and gown on graduation day with her mom who is now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer and a hoarding disorder. This makes it impossible for her to live with her mom. There are the photos of her two little boys in Easter suits when they were two, years old, a video of her son playing the keyboard at Christmas and several recent photos of her and the boys together on playground swings.
I know all of this and much, much more because I have been listening to her story as she reveals it to me, one meeting at a time. I am constantly amazed at her raw honesty, her ability to recognize the mistakes she has made and the acceptance she has in understanding the results of her decisions and owning up to them. I try to dispense some practical career advice and ask her to set a new short-term goal that she gladly does.
Right before we part, I have that sinking feeling inside that makes me think that we haven’t really made much progress today and that perhaps this is not going to be a success story after all. But then, she asks the same question she always asks of me – “So, Lisa, when are we getting together next?”
Jahniya Stone, a June graduate of Freire Charter School in Philadelphia, “sent me reminders to be sure I followed up with her,” says Kelly Dunning, a St. Thomas’ parishioner.
Jahniya, a participant in the Seeing Youth Succeed program run by Episcopal Community Services since her freshman year, met Kelly last fall after Kelly volunteered in a new Mentoring Partnership being piloted by St. Thomas’ with ECS over a 3 year period. ECS professionals matched them following rigorous mentor training and personal interviews. The two formed a close bond, meeting first at a group meeting with other mentors and mentees and then connecting regularly by text and in person. Their relationship blossomed because they learned to trust and hold each other accountable, communicated well, became invested in the process and listened to each other.
“I learned that it’s okay to ask questions,” says Jahniya. “She helped my writing skills as I worked on my college essay. She counseled me to set goals, especially to pass chemistry!” Kelly, a client service manager for a financial advisor whose expertise is in college planning, helped Jahniya and her parents navigate the critical financial aid process. “We have college counselors at Freire, but they have too many kids to cover. I really needed the back-up Kelly provided,” explains Jahniya.
Jahniya will attend Clarion University in the fall, a long way from her North Philadelphia home. She was accepted at three other colleges, but chose a school away from where her classmates applied. “I want to experience new people,” she says. “I’m thinking of majoring in psychology and then going into therapy or social work. I want to help people. My experience with ECS and Kelly has shown me how counselors can have an impact”.
“I adore Jahniya,” says Kelly. “She’s a hard worker. She makes me laugh. She won’t have to remind me to stay in touch after she leaves for college”.
Four college acceptances and scholarship offers in hand (more sure to come), a 4.0 average at Philadelphia Girls High, a supportive family, a high achiever, a self-starter with a tremendous work ethic …that’s my mentee. So what could I bring to our mentee-mentor relationship? Listening, taking an interest, encouraging, very occasionally prodding, checking in regularly, friendly chatty texting, enjoying a mutual interest in visiting the Art Museum together many times over the last 18 months, and helping her get her own Chromebook tablet so she could write papers, do research and submit applications without using her cell phone or the time-limited library computers to do so. Not all relationships are as easy or rewarding as mine and some take real effort to stick with them and make them work. But most in the program will say it’s the personal interest one takes in their mentee that matters the most to everyone in the relationship. In some cases, it takes perseverance to work through issues of cut-off cell phone access, no money to take public transportation to meet, family obligations such as caring for sick or elderly relatives, work schedules, unclear expectations, learning issues, family issues. But when the relationship does click, the impact, though often seemingly small, can be life-enlarging or even life-altering, and definitely worth it. Kindness, patience, perseverance, and relatively little time can mean so much, even with a bright, problem-free star like my mentee. And I know we’ll stay in touch after graduation and hopefully long beyond.
A secondary objective of the Mentoring Program was for our mentors to use their contacts to assist their mentees with job and education opportunities.
- Chris Pacheco networked with a bank president to open a door for his mentee. She is now gainfully employed by the bank.
- John Kepner introduced the Mentoring Program to the college admission officers at Gwynedd Mercy University, Kutztown University and Bryn Mawr College and a Professor of Nursing at Villanova University.
- The admissions officer at Kutztown reached out proactively to Mimi Kepner’s mentee to facilitate a recruiting visit. As a result, Mimi’s mentee narrowed her choices to Kutztown, GMervcyU and Drexel.
- In collaboration with Debby Buck (who holds 3 nursing degrees from GMercyU), John arranged a site visit to GMercyU for several mentees in April 2016. As a result, two juniors who visited applied to GMercyU and were accepted, both receiving substantial scholarships. Debby’s mentee will be attending GMercyU next fall.