‘You’re Pretty Much on Your Own’
I am a dropout from the Fox mentor program, the subject of your article.
While there are some close relationships among the Fox mentors and mentees, I think that for a great many of the mentees, the program represents an opportunity to get out of class and get a free lunch (90% order double bacon cheeseburgers from the commissary grill), as well as extra goodies that are handed out several times a year (T-shirts, etc.).
Aside from an initial two-hour orientation and some written material, no guidance is offered to the mentors. No sessions are scheduled where the mentors can share problems or experiences with other mentors. You’re pretty much on your own. I also felt the leadership, largely African American, to be cliquish and culturally insensitive. Last year, a training session was scheduled on one of the Jewish High Holidays and the leadership had a “tough luck” attitude until pressure was exerted to schedule a makeup session.
I finally dropped out of the program because, although cordial enough, I didn’t feel I could communicate effectively with my mentee. She stood me up on several occasions, even though I asked her to call me, even at the last minute, if she was going to miss a session. I left messages on her machine at home and she never returned my calls.
Yet, whenever I got together with her she was very friendly and shared some of her problems with me.
I think it is dangerous to look at a mentor program as a means to solve large-scale institutional social problems. I think relationships can develop that influence individual mentees, but I think its main achievement is to expose middle-class professionals to how the other half lives.
These kids are as traumatized as kids growing up in Bosnia. My mentee lost a favorite aunt to drugs the year before I met her. Her mother was raising the aunt’s 6-year-old twins, who were wild and made living at home unpleasant for the mentee. While I was meeting with my mentee, her ex-boyfriend, whom she was still occasionally seeing, was murdered execution-style.
During the scheduled sessions on college admission, sex education, etc., my mentee invariably fell asleep. I don’t know if it was from lack of sleep at night or depression. It’s hard to imagine growing up under these circumstances.
And the kids in the Fox program are the achievers, not the “at risk” kids. They have to maintain a high GPA to stay in the program.
‘I Grew in Ways I Never Could Have Imagined’
In 1979 I was matched with a 9-year-old Little Sister, Jennifer, in the Washington, D.C., area where I lived at the time. After a year or two, we seemed to fall through the structural cracks of the Big Sisters organization, but I maintained my commitment to Jennifer and continued to mentor her. Her circumstances were quite grim.
There were times when I considered ending the relationship. But Jennifer’s plight, her frightened, sad eyes every time I returned her to her home, compelled me to stick with her.
In 1984 I received a job offer in Southern California, one I couldn’t, and didn’t, refuse. Jennifer, nearly 15 at the time, was devastated. Shortly thereafter, she ran away from home. Within a couple of months, I was called by the police in South Carolina, where she had ended up in dire straits. Although terrified at the prospect, and knowing it would unalterably change my life, I made the decision to take Jennifer into my home.
The next few years were tumultuous, to say the least. Single, in my 40s with zero parental experience and a dedicated career woman, I was suddenly faced with a moody teenager who had had 15 years’ learning from a manipulative mother how to push every emotional button. And push mine she did. But the joys far outweighed the challenges. I grew in ways I never could have imagined, and Jennifer brought an unbelievable richness and texture to my life.
There is a great deal more to this mentoring saga, much of which should be told from Jennifer’s perspective. But today, my “soul daughter” is a happily married woman with a daughter of 8 and a 13-year-old stepson, living outside Pittsburgh, Penn. And I, who was abandoned by my own mother at the age of 13, was given the ultimate opportunity to heal my own wounds by learning to mother--and then grandmother in a way I had never known for myself.
Who said mentoring is a one-way street?
‘My Goal Was to Help Her . . . Graduate’
I have been working as a paralegal in the downtown legal community for many years. I heard that Arco had a well-organized program in which employees went to downtown schools once a week.
I joined the group, started working with a girl named Meibel at a downtown high school. She was a senior who lacked basic reading and comprehension skills. My goal was to help her finish her senior year and graduate.
Meibel was foreign born, Spanish was her native language. She had been in the Los Angeles school system since the fourth grade, but had very limited English language ability. She was a good kid, with serious problems at home. We got along well, even though she hated reading and writing.
One day I asked her what she wanted to do after graduation. Without hesitation, she said she wanted to work in a movie theatre, making popcorn. I suggested she get applications from theaters in her neighborhood; we would fill them out, prepare a cover letter and hope to get at least one response.
She was amazed that anyone would have to do all that to get a job. She wanted to know how to get addresses of movie theaters. I told her to look them up in the phone book. Then she looked at me and asked, “What’s that?” Could this 17-year-old really not know what a phone book was? I asked the teacher if there was a directory in the classroom.
She took one out of her cupboard. I sat with Meibel and she looked at all the names listed and asked me, “Who are these people?” She was amazed, she asked if she could bring the telephone book home to show her mom and her sister.
She left class very excited that day, and over the course of the year we worked together well. I invited her to my office, she cried as we were seated for lunch at McCormick’s & Schmicks. She said she had never been to a “real” restaurant, or anywhere so beautiful.
I encouraged her to think about trade school, to look for jobs with medical benefits. Then she became interested in a 24-year-old man who was being very attentive to her. He was pressuring her for sex. I showed her how to find clinics in the phone book, suggested she speak to someone about birth control before she became sexually active.
The good news is that Meibel graduated that year. The bad news, she was two months pregnant. She told me not to worry, her boyfriend loved her, he would take care of her and the baby. She called me when she became a mother. Her boyfriend had left her when she was seven months pregnant. Her mother had thrown her out. She was living with an aunt.
Her daughter was beautiful, but was born with a deformed arm and hand and would require surgery and therapy. Meibel was depressed, unhappy, didn’t know what do do. She came to lunch. As we were seated for lunch, she put the baby seat on the table, and said, “Look, my daughter is 2 months old, and she is here already. It took me 17 years to get here!”
Meibel’s daughter is more than 2 years old now. Meibel worked for a while doing nails in a salon. She called me a few weeks ago, she now works at a major chain of hardware stores. She sounds happy, enthusiastic about her job, comfortable with her role as mother.
I’m glad I met Meibel at such an important time in her life. I think I was instrumental in her graduating with her class. I introduced her to more than the telephone directory. I tried to show her that she can look to the future, set goals and choose her paths in life.
MARIE ELENA MILLER
‘I’ve Taken His Advice on My Career’
In 20 years, I’ll totally embarrass Dee Metrian. I’ll tell his kids about his first date, which I chauffeured and financed.
I’ll tell them every goofy detail. He really believed that his new Tommy Hilfiger shirt would impress her. He nearly had a heart attack when he lost his comb. He made me stop at a 99-cent store to buy a new one on the way to pick her up. And he let her wear his Nike jacket, while he almost froze to death. I couldn’t stop laughing when I drove up to the movie theater to pick them up and saw him shivering; his cool-guy image had been completely shattered.
I’ll spare no mercy.
From the day San Bernardino’s S.E.L.F. program linked us four years ago, you’d think we were blood brothers. The hyperactive, 15-year-old ham, whom I used to tower over, now looks down on me.
And I can’t lie. I’ve taken his advice on my career and long-anticipated engagement more than a few times.
I always viewed being a Big Brother as a way of lending support to someone in need. The funny thing is: I never realized that the support is reciprocated.
BILLY JOHNSON JR.
‘I Know Mentoring Can Work’
I have been a mentor to a young woman for the past 1 1/2 years. It has been a frustrating, often disappointing, extremely educational experience with many lows and few highs. A “high” is that she is alive, not on the streets and not doing drugs.
We keep in touch even though she is now in a different program. I’m still her mentor, we see each other weekly, and she often joins me and my husband on outings. Both she and her therapist have told me that I am her lifeline.
I know mentoring can work. But it is far harder than one realizes, and not just because of the baggage the young kids carry. My mentee has been in and out of many social service programs since she was rejected by her family. From my experience, part of the reason many of these young people don’t succeed is due to the very services / organizations that are there to help them. The social service system is in a shambles, offering little or no guidance, structure and positive role models.
Are mentors needed? Absolutely! But we cannot do everything. So much of what is needed so that these young people can survive, let alone support themselves and have a decent life, is left undone. I’m amazed and horrified at what my mentee does not know at 19 years of age.
From my observation it is not the security and safety of the children that one needs to worry about but whether one can recruit, and keep, enough motivated mentors to do the job the social service system doesn’t do.