Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Mentor's Story

I remember first meeting Tony LoRe at the beach for the surfing program Boarding House Mentors about 4 years ago. A friend had been volunteering that summer and asked if I wanted to come and check it out. I remember attending a mentoring session as a guest, and I remember meeting my mentee Imelda when the new mentoring session started. Imelda was the first girl I had spoken to during the meet and greet bowling session. I remember being nervous about the match-up. Was I going to be a good mentor? How was I going to be a good mentor? Would she respond to me? Would we have anything in common? Would I make a difference in this person’s life? Good grief, could I do this? No pressure.

I remember during one of our one-on-one sessions, Imelda asked me why I became a mentor. I told Imelda that I was looking to volunteer somewhere as I was at a point in my life that I wanted to give back. I told Imelda, as an Asian Immigrant in the bible belt of Tennessee, I had a hard time growing up as a non-Caucasian girl in the South. I didn’t have elders or mentors – I wanted to give what I didn’t have (but I wanted and needed) growing up. I remembered the words from the training session – “Be honest, be open, be yourself – they can smell the BS.”

Was I going to be a good mentor? I didn’t know, but I kept showing up for the mentoring sessions twice a month and I “played full out”. That was all that YMC had asked of me.

How was I going to be a good mentor? With the support of Tony and Juliana (with Sarah, Leslie, Derrion and Stewart), I was able to watch and learn during the group sessions once a month as they taught the kids (and the mentors) to take risks, take chances to trust, to let people in, to get out of your comfort zone, to play full out, be present and be open.

Would she respond to me? I remember doing an exercise in one of our group sessions, and Imelda shared that she trusted no one. Imelda was a friendly and gregarious personality, but she trusted no one. No one had trusted her – especially her mother. I remember the summer after our first year together, we were at the beach for the surfing program. Imelda got off the bus, walked over to me and confided in me that she took my advice. She had finally and nervously had a conversation with her mother about their relationship. Ime told me that they were really able to talk to each other for the first time. In between her tears, Ime told me, “She said that she was really worried about me. She told me she really loved me.” My heart was so happy for her.

Would we have anything in common? As the oldest daughter of an immigrant family, having most of the household responsibilities, reading/translating English for your parents, taking care of the siblings, having an overprotective mother who didn’t want you to make the same mistakes as she did, and struggling financially. Is this me or Ime? TTP – “Trust the Process!”

Would I make a difference in this person’s life? During the last Big Bear Girls’ Initiation retreat in October, Ime shocked me. Ime has the most infectious smile and she is a personality, but she has always struggled to express her thoughts and feelings. But one night during the Street Poets led activity, Ime wrote a poem and read it sharing it with all of us.

The Light

I found a Light when I needed it the most.

I found a Light that has understood me from the start.

I found a Light that told me things will turn out right.

I found a Light that helped me find my light.

My light is now strong and bright.

My light was found with the help of the Light.

The Light that loves me,

And I have learned to love mine.

Juliana kept looking at me as Ime read the poem, and half way through it I started bawling when I realized that she had written it about me. I was floored. I was amazed. I was humbled. She found her light. She learned to love her own light. For Pete’s sake, she called me the Light! I’m crying again…

In the YMC Mentor Training Manual there’s a quote by Keith Geiger: “The most crucial role for a mentor is to be an adult who has time for a young person, who cares about that young person, and who believes in that young person. This relationship may provide the ONLY stability a student knows, and the only time anyone spends quality time with the mentee.”

Sometimes there’s so much crap in front of us (in our lives), it’s hard to see anything else. And maybe, all I really can do or am supposed to do (while I have the chance) is raise the mirror in front of her face and flicker on the light so that she can also see what I see in her.

Ime hears gunshots at night. Her younger brother is not allowed to walk around the neighborhood by himself because of gang violence. Ime works to help support her family. She has struggled and gone through depression. But Ime’s also the first in her family to graduate from high school. Ime is caring, compassionate, loving and kind. She just got her driver’s permit (yikes!) and she’s optimistically thinking about college and trying to figure out what she wants for her future. Ime is a beautiful human being, I love her and I am very grateful to have her in my life.

I remember one Initiation Retreat two years ago – it was a week after my mom had passed away from breast cancer. I had committed to be a mentor for the retreat…and I went. I remember the first night as the girls started getting off the bus, the first thing I heard was Ime’s voice, “Where’s Danni?” I felt her voice chipping away at the numbness in my heart. I showed up and the girls and the staff showed up for me. My heart was breaking, I was confused and I was calm all at the same time.

One night during the retreat, sixteen year old Dineisha who had lost both of her parents came up to me and said, “Maybe your mom wasn’t able to take care of you the way she wanted to, but now she can.” The wisdom and resilience of these youth – who have grown up with violence, born to drug addicted mothers and absent fathers, who have been neglected, abused, ignored and forgotten by their community and the government – astounds me. The growth and transformation I’ve been privileged to witness in these beautiful young men and women – humbles me. The unconditional love, support and dedication of the YMC staff – inspires me.

I have learned that when I show up for these kids trying to reflect back to them what I see in them – their gifts, their talents, their potential, I have found that people show up for me in my life and reflect back to me what they see in me – my gifts, my talents and my potential.

“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself...Serve and thou shalt be served.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The focus of this program will be on the one to one relationship between mentor and mentee, with emphasis on developing happy, healthy lives, trust, self confidence, empowerment and a vision for the future.” Change 2 lives, become a mentor – indeed.

I love your guts YMC!

Sawubona (I see you),

Danni aka La Lupe

1 comment:

Kathy Kirby said...

Beautifully said, Danni. I shed a tear myself. The payoff for what you and Mike do with these kids is difficult to understand unless it's been experienced first hand. All my years teaching first alternative schools and then in urban high schools provided many of these same emotional and gratifying moments that you describe. I guess that's why I stayed so long.