Have you considered mentoring, but are unsure what to expect? Maybe you've been a mentor before and wonder how your experience stacks up to your peers'? In this blog post, a YNPNmaine member summarizes her time as a mentor and reflects on the bright spots and tough times she experienced.
*TW/CW: Abuse, self harm, and misunderstandings regarding the Trans community
I decided to sign up as a mentor with Big Brother Big Sister in the first few months of moving to Portland. I was eight hours away from home, had few friends of my own, was in a crappy relationship, and worked in an office full of middle-aged divorcees. I was a bit starved for meaningful connections and missed working as a peer coach and tutor throughout college. I also suffer from severe Catholic guilt, so I thought, hey, let's get involved in the community and “give back” as they say.
The application process was more involved than I had anticipated, including a federal background check and one and a half hour interview. After a few weeks I heard back from the BBBS representative and was alerted that I had been approved. Yay! Only after being approved did I find out that getting matched is probably the hardest and longest part of the process. I didn't get matched with my "little" until close to a year after initially getting approved. I was pretty flabbergasted when I finally got the call and, to be honest, I had kind of forgotten about signing up.
The representative described an artsy, quiet, LGBT identifying 13 year old who had just relocated to Maine to be with her biological father. They disclosed Danielle's** history of abuse from when she lived with her mother and stepfather and that her mother and father were in the midst of a bitter custody battle. The representative went into a lot more detail than I was expecting about the horribly dysfunctional family dynamics and by the end of the conversation I felt like I already knew this girl and desperately wanted to help her. I agreed to go through with the match and we met the following week at the family's house to sign the contract.
Our first outing was thankfully a lot less awkward than I had thought it would be. It almost felt like I was going on a first date or a job interview! Except a 13 year old is a lot tougher of a crowd than any potential partner or employer. We went longboarding at the cemetery behind her house and I was so happy when the conversation flowed naturally as she talked about her favorite anime shows and which teachers at her school she didn’t like. Our subsequent outings were always a lot of fun and I found myself doing things I never would normally do (i.e. go to the trampoline park, watch superhero movies, play with cats at the animal shelter).
Unfortunately, I wish I could say the logistics of being a mentor are as fun as the actual outings. Danielle’s home life was difficult to say the least - her father and step-mother both suffer from autism, don’t have jobs, and display temper and emotional maturity levels similar to my 13 year old little. The addition of a cluttered home and younger sibling also in need of support added to the confusing and difficult home life. I received numerous calls throughout the match from my little’s father, where he would complain for over 45 minutes at a time about his daughter’s attitude and claim that he didn’t understand why she couldn’t just “get over” her years of abuse. While I have a patient and understanding personality, I am in no way trained to handle this type of situation. I always felt like I was saying the wrong thing to both my little and the father when it came to the serious stuff. I reported some, but not all, of the father’s inappropriate behavior to BBBS and they offered words of encouragement and friendly reminders back to Danielle’s father. While the support from BBBS was often helpful, I often felt in over my head.
The match came to a head toward the end of our yearlong contract when Danielle came out as transgender to her father and asked to be called Dan. Her father did not take the news well despite being comfortable with his child when they previously came out as homosexual. This was when the phone calls to me increased and were more inappropriate in nature. My little’s father asked that I not go along with the transition and to still call Dan “Danielle”. I had a brief talk with Dan about it and he agreed that he wanted to be called by this new name and male pronouns. Of course, I was happy to oblige, but it did make it awkward when I would have conversations with both my little and his father in the same room. Trying to avoid pronouns altogether as to not upset either of them is not an easy task…
Right around the same time the contract was ending, Dan was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for hurting himself. I received a few phone calls from his father during his hospitalization, but somehow I knew not to pick up and I instead waited for BBBS to contact me. Based on their protocol, BBBS contacted me and let me know that our match had to end, as Dan now needs to be with trained professionals. My feeling of “you’re in over your head” at several points of the match was realized when I had the lengthy discussion with BBBS. They thought it would be best to have a final outing at the BBBS location and we were treated with pizza and board games. As always, Dan was so much fun to be around and I got to catch up on his newest drawings, which are amazingly good! I got him a card that expressed my feelings and made sure to mention numerous times that I’m always here for him. I got the typical 13 year old eye rolling, but I know he heard me.
Mentorship is not like other types of volunteering, which I got to learn the hard, but rewarding way. I never went into it thinking that I could magically change someone’s life, but it’s easy to feel you could always be doing more. During most of the match, I was also working two jobs, one of which had recently promoted me, which meant I was spending a huge amount of time learning a lot of new things. I wish I had had more time to devote and more courage to appropriately deal with Dan’s father, but I just wasn’t there emotionally to give as much as I would have liked. Getting to know Dan was such an amazing experience and I would still highly recommend the program to just about anybody. I would advise anybody thinking of doing a mentorship program that it is emotionally challenging, but one of the most worthwhile things you can do with your free time.
**Names have been changed to protect all parties’ identities.