by Kali’ Rourke
I started mentoring a first grade girl last year through Seedling’s Promise, a school-based, research driven and metrics based program that has great training and support. I will mentor her again this year!
My childhood family had its share of poverty, dysfunction, and divorce. I even had a Dad who committed suicide in prison when I was an adult. The parallels between me and my Mentee are many. You would think I would know everything I need to about how to communicate constructively with her, but you would be wrong.
You see, I have forty plus years on her. During that time I had a career, married, had children, became a philanthropist, and along the way I became removed from the culture of poverty and crisis. I had to re-learn these lessons. Thank heavens, Seedling’s Promise assumes we will all need that and prepares us to be intentional mentors.
Here are just a few things I learned this last year.
- The gifts I bring to my Mentee are hers to do with as she wishes with no expectations from me. Why? Because in the culture of poverty, all things brought into the house belong to the family. When I gave her flowered bobby pins for Valentine’s Day, she told me her mom “put them on the baby.” Untrained me might have said, “But those are yours; you should take them back!” or perhaps even worse, “Oh my gosh, why would you put those dangerous things on a baby?” Both statements would be damaging and would distance my Mentee from me because it would be painfully clear to her that a.) I didn’t understand her family at all, and b.) I disapproved of them. Instead, thanks to my Seedling training, I simply told her that she was kind to share with her sister.
- I must avoid judgment of her parents. One of the most damaging things a Mentor can do with a child of the incarcerated is to express disapproval of the missing parent or the caregiver who is present. I helped my Mentee write a note to her Dad in prison. It was simply filled with the unconditional love of a child for a missing parent. (And smiley face stamps, of course!)
- I must always respect the pride of the Caregiver. She is the gatekeeper of the mentoring relationship and it exists only with her approval. I don’t know her story and I don’t have any right to judge anything about the way she is parenting. We are all tempted to jump in and “save” or make them fit our paradigm of success but good mentoring is combining acceptance and role modeling. If you have an effect on a child, it will be because of your friendship.
- I am there for my Mentee. Anything else is just distraction, and my focus in this relationship is to listen and do no harm.
What will the coming year bring? I have no idea, but I hope it includes her smiles and giggles!
Kali’ is an active volunteer in Austin, Tx, and serves on several boards and advisory councils for mentoring. She is also a mentor, an Impact Austin Philanthropist and a social media wonk.