Thank you: for prompting me to write something that I’ve needed to write about for quite some time. When asked to highlight a charitable organization for which we might collectively raise money, my mind hops to several ideas (see right “Cool Stuff” for a few of those). What amazes me is that it took me several minutes of web browsing and pondering to remember the charity that has impacted my life more than I could ever possibly imagine. Big Brothers Big Sisters.
I have been a mentor since 1999. I’ve seen my little sister grow from being 7 to 16. And she’s seen me grow from being a much less confident, unhappy-in-denial, worried person into the shining example of an only-slightly-neurotic-woman that I am today. She’ll be the first one to tell you all about how I don’t worry a fraction as much as I used to. She’ll also tell you that I dress better than I used to. But this really isn’t about me, is it? Where was I?
These days, Cheyene* and I have spent enough time reminiscing about our early years together, that she already knows the first year was hardest for me. That may sound harsh, but the truth is she was 7 and an incredibly strong-willed person with 700,000 reasons not to trust a stranger (wise of her), and she was testing me.
One of her favorite games used to be to holler out in a parking lot, “Help!! I’m being kidnapped!” Charming, isn’t it? I had a business card from Big Sisters with our names on it, so eventually, a police officer would have been able to discover my legitimacy, but I hated the thought of going through that. Man, how she loved yelling out, “Help!” at any opportunity. It’s what prompted me to create “”Big Sister/Little Sister” I.D. “lami’s” with our faces & names for both of us to wear when we did the AIDSWalk years ago.
Most of the time, she was a strikingly charismatic adorable delight. Outgoing. Bubbly. Sweet. She’s still got these qualities – they’re a part of her essence – and her essence is fabulous. But when she was 7 and she didn’t get her way: Damn, she could dole out the silent treatment. Something would happen that made her upset (I wouldn’t buy her the $30 gizmo in the gift shop. Or I wouldn’t let her get a slurpee, candy AND a large popcorn. Or I wouldn’t let her go into the ocean with her clothes on, etc., etc.) She’d completely shut down to the point that I would just have to take her home. Seriously, we nearly left Disneyland at 11am. Oooh – it used to make me so angry. I would try very hard to use my calm voice and say the same thing every time: It’s okay for you to be mad at me, but friends talk to each other about their feelings. I’m going to remain your friend no matter how many times we get mad at each other. But we need to talk about our feelings.
After months and months and months and months of the same pattern of Punishment By Block Off, there was eventually the first time that she mumbled to me, “I’m mad at you because you didn’t buy it for me.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I was ecstatic, “Chey thank you so much for telling me what you’re feeling . . .” Maybe kids hear the Snoopy Teacher “Woh-waah-Wuh,” 80% of the time when we talk to them, but oh, that 20% that gets through. Thank God for that!
I wrote a whole post on Cheyene here. What that essay doesn’t say is that I will never forget the moment the notion of becoming a mentor occured to me. I was getting ready for work, within ear shot of the TV (I used to have the TV on a lot more often then) and even though I couldn’t see the images, I knew it was Jimmy Smits talking. He said something about mentoring. I had seen that PSA dozens of times before. But on that morning, I thought (was it me thinking?) I need to-want to-will do this. Now is the time. I got to work that day and looked up Big Brothers Big Sisters in the yellow pages.
Recently I attended a workshop for new mentors. I was supposed to be one of the voices of experience (scary, I know). And the man who hosted the event, one of the board of directors – an amazing person – asked all of us to be on the look out for who we might encourage to become mentors. This is such a dubious task for me because I know how challenging mentoring can be at times. No matter how daunting, I do need to be more vocal about my experiences. There are so many children who really could use extra guidance in their lives. It’s not about economics.
Every human being I know benefits each time another person turns to them with deliberate focus and says in some way, I care about you.
And that’s what mentoring is: saying I care about you to one child over and over and over again.
You may decide to become a mentor some day. It won’t be because of what you hear Jimmy Smits say on television, it won’t be because of what you’ve read here. It’ll be because that voice inside you (Is it quiet? Is it boomingly loud? Is it urgent? Is it calm?) that voice inside you, how ever it sounds, will tell you, “Now is the time.”
And if your time doesn’t come, perhaps you’ll see fit to lend a few dollars towards the people who work so hard to make mentoring happen. I say “lend” because everthing we give out comes back to us.
I know that because I have a little sister and she tells me she cares about me in so many ways over and over and over again.