Milvia Valladares didn't know what to expect when she first encountered the rich white lady assigned to help her through high school. "I felt embarrassed ... scared," she recalled. "I thought, 'What are we going to talk about?"'
And her mentor, Aileen McCall, didn't know what to make of the shy 16-year-old Latina she had been assigned--a girl who had never been to a movie theater or eaten in a fancy restaurant, whose only outings were the short trips she made between school and the tiny, one-room apartment she shared with her mom and brother.
Now, two years later, neither of them can imagine life without the other.
"I looked at [mentoring] as a way to give back to my community," recalls Aileen. "I thought that my student might benefit from the types of activities my parents did with my siblings and me ... visits to museums, the planetarium, educational things.
"Never did I dream I would find so much joy in the simple pleasures of sitting in the library or in her room, just talking."
And never did Milvia--timid and soft-spoken--imagine she would wind up leading a student group or giving speeches before groups of lawyers and CPAs. Or heading off to Colorado for college, as she will this fall.
"Aileen gave me a whole new set of eyes to see the world," Milvia said. "Before meeting her, I was not comfortable going to certain places because I am Hispanic and poor. I learned that it is not about money or the clothes you wear, but that it is about who you are.
"She helped me to believe in myself."
The concept is simple: Pair a struggling youth with a successful adult who will act as guide, role model, confidante. It is a staple of most programs aimed at helping disadvantaged kids, yet its success often lies not in the field trips, study sessions and counseling that mentors provide, but in the intimate unfolding of two very different lives.
"I had minimum expectations. I figured I'd spend a couple hours a month with [Milvia]," admits McCall, a successful financial adviser who joined a mentoring program run by the Fulfillment Fund two years ago when she was reeling from having lost a job. "I realized I'd spent 12 to 15 hours a day for 10 years, for what?" Before long, she said, her time with Milvia "turned into 'Can I possibly get her to see me every weekend?' She became such a bright spot in my life."
Megan Koehler, who runs the Fulfillment Fund's mentor program, said the teams often develop relationships that last far beyond the five-year commitment--from eighth grade through high school--the fund asks them to make. The group sponsors 300 student-mentor teams, but an additional 100 students are waiting for mentors. Students who remain in the program through graduation receive $5,000 college scholarships. Mentors receive
"Being a mentor is the most magical, rewarding and inspirational thing I have ever done. It's taught me about love ... and about hope."
Mentors are asked to help their students pursue educational goals. Sometimes that means finding a math tutor, lending a computer, arranging a visit to a college campus. Over time, it can mean helping a student find him or herself.
Fulfillment Fund students are chosen because they have high academic potential but are at risk of dropping out because of poverty, gang pressures or chaos at home. Sometimes the lessons they need to learn are those that mentors provide by example: The value of being on time. The mechanics of organizing a life. The importance of having a backup plan.
Ask the students what their mentors have taught them, and their answers have more to do with life than school: How to pick good friends and keep them. How to disagree with someone respectfully. How to forgive others for their shortcomings. How to tell a good boyfriend from the kind of "loser guys" who hold you down.
"She's taught me that you should depend mostly on yourself and make the right decisions for you rather than for other people," says Graff's mentee, Sophia Robertson. "She pushes me.... It drives me nuts sometimes, but I like that about her."
As the students learn from their mentors' lives, the mentors are learning too. While she was teaching Milvia to explore new things--like horseback riding and inline skating--McCall was being introduced to the joy of simplicity, like a birthday party for Milvia, with a backyard barbecue and all the guacamole you can eat.
"The family's friends came over, and people of all ages danced the night away in that crowded little living room," McCall recalled. "I was reminded that parties are about celebrating relationships, not the perfect Martha Stewart details--decorations, catering or entertainment.
"And I realized that I had a lot in common with people who I once would have thought were so different from me. It's changed the way I see the world, as well."
Sandy Banks' column runs on Tuesdays and Sundays. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.