The Summer I Became a Mentor

The Summer I Became a Mentor
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Why you should care

Because few things can set a young person up for success better than a positive influence.

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When I was growing up in West Virginia, I ran track and cross-country throughout middle and high school. I loved the sport, but I grew up in poverty so I couldn’t even afford running shoes. But I had a coach who believed in me and went out of his way to help. Every so often, he’d show up at my house with a brand-new pair of running shoes. Plus, he treated me like I was an adult and let me make my own choices — and mistakes. I learned a lot from him.

I think of him often when I’m mentoring the young people who participate in our summer jobs program at the Americana World Community Center in Louisville, Kentucky. We hire young people — mostly refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Liberia and Burma — to work as counselors to assist teachers in summer classes for elementary school students. I mentor several each summer, focusing primarily on building leadership skills, like how to be assertive with students and peers and how to manage conflict in a professional manner.

As a mentor, flexibility is key: I try to meet each young person where he or she is. For example, I once mentored Muhammad, a 16-year-old Somali refugee who was also a high-functioning autistic person. He struggled with reading and literacy. Instead of helping out in the classroom as a counselor, he worked in our community garden. And instead of teaching him leadership skills during our one-on-one sessions, I helped him to understand his schedule and job responsibilities and was always available if he needed me during the day. Another organization — or mentor — may not have been able to accommodate him, but we worked really hard to make sure that he felt supported in his work here.

I think mentoring has made me a more patient person.

In our program, we encourage our young people to feel like they’re part of the team, but for many it’s their first experience in the workforce and they can have a hard time adjusting. I once mentored a young woman who occasionally resisted my guidance, but we all continued to treat her like a staff member and supported her in whatever she accomplished. At the end of the summer, she apologized for her behavior and thanked us for giving her the opportunity to work at the center. The best part was when she returned to work with us the following summer.

Of course, mentoring provides plenty of challenges for mentors too. As program director, I have a lot of responsibility at Americana, and finding the time to mentor is never easy. But it’s worth it because it makes me feel much more connected to the community. Sometimes people who work in administrative roles lose touch with the people they serve and instead spend most of their time holed up in the office, but because I’m able to maintain a connection through mentoring, I am better able to shape future programs that serve the people we work with year-round. And personally, I think mentoring has made me a more patient person.

In any mentoring relationship, it’s very important to keep an open mind to different perspectives, especially if you’re working with kids who are living in poverty or in communities where gangs and drugs are a constant threat. It’s also vital to understand that the young person you’re mentoring has something valuable to contribute to the relationship. After all, mentoring is not just you teaching a young person, but the young person is teaching you as well.

In today’s world, young people are overly saturated with technology and negativity — and violence, sadly — so it’s really important they have someone in their lives they can talk to who will support them and push them to dream bigger. In many cases, that someone is a mentor at a summer job.

I’ll continue to mentor because it allows me to help change a young person’s life, just like my coach did for me. What could be better than that?

Kristin Burgoyne is programs director at the Americana World Community Center in Louisville, Kentucky. She has mentored numerous young people through the SummerWorks program, operated by KentuckianaWorks, which received a grant from the JPMorgan Chase Foundation for the summer of 2017.