A Mentor’s Story: Research Behind the Faces

BlogApr 15 2013

Working in communications at Child Trends provides me access to an abundance of research on children and family issues. Although I am only starting my third month here, I am already recognizing the personal connections I have to many of the topics our research scientists explore. Take our new research brief on mentoring, which found that mentoring relationships that last more than a year and focus on education and social-emotional skills most often work best.

I have mentored three youth during my adult years and will use pseudonyms in describing them. Each mentoring relationship has been memorable and motivating to me. Chuckie, the first child I mentored, was seven years-old when we met. He lived with his single mother and older brother in a small, two-bedroom home in a low-income neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C.  Chuckie was an energetic kid who enjoyed our weekly outings to play in the park, go on hikes, eat pizza and read books. When we drove through his neighborhood, he would roll down the window and yell out hellos to the older teens walking around. He did not seem to be afraid of anything or anyone. Later, I found that beneath this hardened exterior was a kid craving affection and attention. I wasn’t prepared for how quickly he bonded to me. After our first get-together, he wrapped his skinny arms around my waist and started to cry when it was time to go home.  After about two months together, I had my first look inside his home. It was a wreck; dishes piled up in the sink, clothes and trash everywhere. I also discovered that he had no hot water in his house. It was tough to accept that he had to live in this condition, but I also knew I could not change his situation myself. For the next seven months, I saw him weekly and enjoyed the mutual satisfaction we both got from the time together. My time with Chuckie ended after I moved to Austin, Texas. A co-worker of mine took on mentoring Chuckie. I found out later that Chuckie stole money from him and his wife so the relationship ended. I often have wondered what happened to him.

More recently, I volunteered to mentor a 10-year-old, Troy, through a small mentoring program sponsored by the Perry School Community Services Center in Washington. Troy was a smart, athletic kid who preferred spending time shooting basketballs rather than studying. We created a game where he got to shoot the basketball every time he could recite the multiplication tables for a particular number. I am proud to say he mastered these tables and also got in many basketball shots. I worked with Troy for about 18-months. After his father was released from a correctional facility, his mother withdrew him from the program. I think he probably is doing well, but I don’t actually know.

After Troy, the Perry School asked me to mentor another youth. John was 13 when we met and living with a very nice foster family. He also had a very good relationship and weekly contact with his mother and brothers and sisters. Born with cerebral palsy, John has difficulties walking or ascending stairs on his own. Having never mentored a youth with a disability, I wasn’t sure I was equipped to serve as his mentor but the program manager at the Perry School encouraged me to give it a try.

For the first visit, I brought some books for us to read together. After asking John to read some pages and watching him twitch in his chair in silence, I realized that he could not read. It was a frustrating and embarrassing experience for him trying to read, and it was surprising to me. Over the course of the next two to three years, John and I met once a week for about two hours. We would go to the D.C. Public Library and look at beginning reading books. I bought some first grade reading workbooks and we went page-by-page through them. It was a slow process, but one that yielded steady progress. His social worker also played a role by getting him out of the special ed program in D.C. Public Schools and into a charter school that could give him more personal instructional help. He also was enrolled in a reading tutoring program. It was an intensive effort to help him catch up academically.

As the years went by, his language skills improved. He was reading the menu when we had lunch and telling me about the many things he was learning in school. But the most exciting change was his positive self-confidence and self-esteem. He had a growing interest in the world around him. He started talking about becoming a motivational speaker. Around the age of 17, he moved out of foster care and into an independent-living group home. He then began to learn the life skills needed to live on his own. He secured an internship with a government agency, where he now works full time. And, now, 21, he has his own apartment and a full-time job, where he often is asked to give motivational talks. I could not be more happy for him.

These three mentoring experiences have shaped my life, too. As a reading tutor, I gained an appreciation for literacy. My interest led to a career shift accepting a job at Reading Is Fundamental and later working with other literacy organizations including Raising A Reader and ProLiteracy. I carry this interest in and passion for children’s issues to my new job here at Child Trends.