Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In it together

Thanks to Hoolie for giving me the opportunity to guest blog on Wednesday's Word on the Street.

Tonight we had the incredible privilege of holding a training for the mentees who will be joining us as Youth Leaders on our upcoming Mentee Initiation Retreat. I don't call this a "privilege" lightly - believe me, I knew we were going to work till 9 pm tonight, and I was fully expecting to be stressed, exhausted, and maybe just a tad resentful by the end of the long day. Instead, I am filled to the brim with gratitude: today has been a privilege indeed.

Our Youth Leaders are young men and women who have been with us for several years. I have known some of them since they were hard little 14-year-olds hiding behind long bangs or under a hoodie, and now they are 17 and 18 and coming into their own. What we witnessed tonight was our Youth Leaders responding to two questions: "What gift are you bringing? And what do you yourself need to work on up on the mountain?" And it seemed like 3 or 4 years of growth was captured, like a time-lapse, in these 2 hours.

One young woman, whose quick temper had kept her from leadership in the past, shared that every year on the retreat she had been able to change something - but this year she was finally ready to work on her responses, her listening, her anger. Another high-achieving, hyper-responsible mentee shared that she wants to learn how to say "no," how to take care of herself. A third young woman had, for years, shut down so fiercely when she was uncomfortable that there was nothing we on staff could do but take turns talking to her, usually to no effect. Believe me, we're good at what we do - but with her, we were scratching at stone with our fingernails. Well, do you know what came out of this little girl's mouth tonight? "What I need to work on is being ok with having feelings." My heart just about burst out of my chest.

Here's the thing. Our youth are mirrors for us. As I watched them stepping up into their own potential as young adults, naming their own hard places, I wasn't just proud - I also recognized a lot of myself in there. When one of our Youth Leaders shared tonight, "I feel so comfortable helping other people with their problems, trying to fix others, but I have a really hard time looking at myself," one of my coworkers quipped, "Have you considered a career in a youth-serving nonprofit?" She played it off as a joke, but those of us on staff exchanged glances. We know the truth in her quick response.

We know that doing what we do, it's tempting to hide our own difficulties behind the constant crisis and drama of young lives - but doing that, we can't truly do this work. When we're truly in it, we are growing and stumbling right there with our kids. I am reminded of a mentor who realized 6 months into his commitment that even though he was responsible, successful, and had a family, he needed to change the ways he was using alcohol in his life. His inspiration for this was his mentee - "I couldn't be a role model for him without looking at myself."

I'm giving thanks tonight to my former 14-year-old hoodie kids, growing into young adulthood in all its messy glory. I was barely 23 when I started at YMC, and I'm going to be 27 soon: and I owe many of the good things in my growing-out-of-young-adult life to stumbling and tumbling and growing right alongside my mentees. When we say that you'll change two lives when you become a mentor... we really, really mean it.


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