January is National Mentoring Month and this is my story: After 20 plus years at Verizon, I spent almost a decade working on the administrative side of mentoring at risk youth. After that I spent another almost decade working in Christian radio. Then two years ago I returned to the field of at risk youth for, not as an administrator, but on the front lines where I had direct, day to day interaction with at risk girls of various ages, cultures, experiences and expectations.
It was challenging, trying to get past their tough exteriors, the tests they put you through to see if you're for real, and the ability to know instinctively what to say, how to say it, and when to say it. However, what became evident to me is that when it came down to it at risk youth just want to be loved, understood and accepted. But because of life's circumstances, many of which they had/have no control over, how they express that is marred with the stain of their upbringing, their environment, and their lineage.
As I worked to try and make some sort of real connection with the girls, old memories surfaced and I began to remember myself at their age (that's me in the picture) - a church girl who got into smoking, bullying, and other very risky behavior. Inside I was angry, hurt, disillusioned and confused because of the lifelong secret I carried of growing up in an abusive household. Behind all my risky behavior, I just wanted to be loved. To be protected. To be safe. To be understood. To be accepted. Just like the girls in the at risk program.
Though my year was over before I knew it, while there I daily prayed for the strength and the grace to listen between the profanity, to see behind the anger, and to feel beyond the defiance. I prayed that I would remember that first and foremost they were souls, they were precious in God's sight, and that He had allowed our paths to cross for a reason. I prayed that I would remember that I am called to love my neighbor and that in God's eyes each one of them was my neighbor. I prayed that while they were in my presence, I would do my best to teach them - with patience, determination and hope - how to respect, value and love themselves. Because God already did. It was my belief that once they learned that lesson, all the other lessons - like life skills, social skills, tutoring, creative expression, - would be just a little bit easier.
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