Lessons from Mentors Who Succeeded

Last night I went to a panel discussion hosted by New Pathways for Youth, the mentoring organization I started volunteering with in September of 2015. Four mentors who had many years of mentoring experience were there to share their stories and answer questions. I was excited to go, but I wasn’t prepared for the impact their stories would have on me. I’m still reeling from the discussion almost 24 hours later. I need to write down this wisdom so I can refer to it when things get tough.

Julie, Cathy and Wendell were part of the mentoring organization when it first started in the late ’80s and the fourth panelist, Omar, has been involved for six years. Amazingly, Julie’s first mentee, Leon, was also there to participate. They have known each other for 26 years and Leon calls Julie his best friend. They were matched when Leon was 15 and Julie was in her early 20’s. A moderator had a list of questions and would let each panelist and Leon respond.

The moderator started by having everyone introduce themselves and say how they got involved. Everyone had full time jobs, ranging from a business owner, to a producer for Channel 12 news to project manager and saleswoman. I believe they all had their own children and managed the normal commitments of family life. The mentors who have been involved since the beginning were in their 50s and 60s and Omar looked to be around 40. These people were regular, working, upper-middle class people, not trust-fund babies with lots of time on their hands for philanthropy.

Making Time

The moderator then asked about some of their reservations about mentoring and Wendell’s answer struck me. He said he was very excited to get involved, then when it came time to get matched with his youth, he got cold feet. Wendell had two of his own children. He owned a business with 500 employees. He was busy and started to worry about how he could commit to to something so time-intensive. When he showed up at the orientation, his plan was to explain this to the group and gracefully bow out. But, it didn’t work. They wouldn’t let him leave so easily and reemphasized the impact he could make. When asked how he overcame that challenge of busyness, he replied:

“Decide to make the time and it will be there. It was always there…it showed up” — Wendell

I had goosebumps and re-reading my notes in my book makes me tear up a little. We all have busy lives, it’s a reality of our society. But when he prioritized this work, the time appeared because it was always there. What would the world look like if we prioritized even small acts of kindness?

Later in the program, Wendell mentioned that one of his mentees had a substance abuse problem and they worked for a long time to get him clean. Wendell then shared a story that this youth called him late at night one evening and told him he’d been in a car accident. The youth was driving and hit a pedestrian and killed him. Wendell was understandably very concerned, this was a very serious accident. The youth then told him that Wendell was the first person he called because the police had tested him for drugs and alcohol and he was sober. The pedestrian had run out into the road and there was nothing the youth could’ve done to avoid hitting him, so the youth was not cited. Wendell looked at all of us and asked us to imagine how the youth’s life would’ve changed if he had been drunk or high. He would be in jail for vehicular manslaughter. The youth wanted to tell Wendell thank you for all the support he had given him while he was getting sober. Wendell made a choice to make time for this youth, and in doing so, helped save him from a prison sentence.

Commitment & Results

Many of the mentors, including Wendell, said that at times it’s hard to gauge what kind of impact you’re having on these kids. You don’t know if you’re getting through, or if they even like you, then you get a phone call like Wendell got after his youth was in the accident. After every small act of support and every time a mentor follows through on a promise, another seed is planted in the youth. The impact of mentoring is the amalgamation of all of these moments.

Truthfully, the majority of these kids don’t have an adult in their lives who can model the behavior that good mentor will model. Cathy told the story that every Saturday, she would show up at her youth’s house and take her to the mentoring organization’s meetings. Sometimes, the youth wasn’t there, but she ALWAYS made sure she showed up so that she could model what it looked like to follow through on your promises. On a particular Saturday, Cathy showed up and one of the other kids in the apartment complex told Cathy that her youth was in a hotel on Van Buren partying. Cathy actually went to the hotel and found her youth and told her it was time to go. The youth’s friend asked if Cathy was her mom and the youth said, “my mom doesn’t care where I am but Cathy does.” Cathy and her drunk mentee then sat through a very long meeting together, but she said that things started to improve after that. She said her youth started to understand that if she said she would be there, she was going to follow through and show up. It was the first time in the youth’s life that she had experienced this type of commitment and support.

Interestingly, everyone agreed that mentoring and dealing with these situations has made them much better parents. Cathy was saying that her style of mothering has been molded by what she experienced with her mentees. She said it’s made her more empathetic toward her kids and whatever experience they might be going through; she’s more open-minded and doesn’t jump to conclusions as quickly as she might’ve. She’s also better at setting boundaries and expectations with her own kids. Each mentor said that mentoring doesn’t only impact one life. It impacts everyone that the mentor and mentee interact with. The mentors are better parents, Wendell said he’s less judgmental of others and Omar said he cares more about others and his community. The mentees that are now grown are excellent mothers, productive employees and mentors themselves. An entire community is impacted through one relationship.

Leon’s Side

I found Leon to be incredibly fascinating, and a little familiar. He was a good looking Hispanic guy with a big neck tattoo in his early 40s and he struck me as someone who’s naturally optimistic and someone who easily accesses his emotions. He grew up very poor in South Phoenix, the oldest of 9 kids, and he had no idea what to think of Julie at first. He made a comment that she just wouldn’t go away and he didn’t know why. He had no clue why she cared about his grades or what he was up to.

Julie said the first year was extremely difficult. She would go to pick him up on Saturdays and she would watch Leon climb out his window and run away when she pulled up. She found a resource in Leon’s mom and the two of them slowly started to get Leon to show up. He started returning her calls. They started making progress. Julie ended up teaching Leon to drive, they were in each other’s weddings and they still talk a lot. Leon has had problems with substance abuse on and off in his adult life and Julie has always been there for him. Leon remarked that Julie was the first person to show him optimism and she helped him see what options were open to him in life. You could tell that he loves her like he loves his mom. Their dynamic was inspiring.

Leon was so fun to listen to — his eyes sparkled when he talked about Julie and what their relationship means to him. He said Julie has had a hand in all his successes and she’s helped him to be a better husband and father. Leon proudly said that his kids are grown and doing better financially than he is. At one point, Leon told us that as a mentor,

“You’re gonna be somebody’s best friend, somebody’s mom, somebody’s dad, their brother, their sister” — Leon

ES and I always talk about how you can pick your people and create your own family. Leon’s sentiment is the same — when we can give selflessly to others, we make deep, lasting bonds. Humans are social creatures and we all need someone lean on when times are hard. Maybe you blood family can’t provide that, but your chosen family can.

I also love that this quote addresses the changing nature of relationships. As time went by, Julie saw her role change from mother / teacher to friend to sister, back to mother. Right now, the two are friends and they take a lot of joy in each other’s success. In my own life, I’ve watched people switch roles, sometimes seamlessly and sometimes with much chagrin. I would like to work on filling the role that needs to be filled instead of which one I want to play.

At one point in their conversation, Julie said she boiled down her mentoring philosophy into 3 key points:

  1. Step in when you see need
  2. Do what you say you’re going to do
  3. Don’t give up

She applied all of these with Leon and her other mentees and they have since become a motto on how she lives her life.

Don’t Be Afraid

The moderator ended with a final question on what advice the mentors had for anyone just starting their mentor match relationship. Omar had a great response:

“Accept your greatness” — Omar

He went on to say that we all have important strengths and talents inside of us that we can use to better the world. He urged us not to get bogged down in the details or the doubts. It’s ok if you don’t have a degree in child psychology, everyone can still make a huge impact. Don’t be scared by what you lack, you still have treasures to offer.

As humans, we all have a divine spark inside — part of our jobs as mentors is helping out mentees find their own. Most of the youth don’t have high self esteem or have any hopes for their future beyond what they see at home. We can help them find those talents that may be buried and unpolished. In turn, they help us to see that we, ourselves, are valuable. I am enough, and so are our youth.


After the panel concluded, I saw ES go up to Leon and talk to him. I followed and it turned out that both ES and I worked with Leon about 10 years ago. My dad had a construction business and I worked in the office and ES and Leon had worked in the field.

When Leon started working for us, he was a great guy, but about a year after, he started missing work. He was losing weight. He didn’t look good and his stories weren’t adding up — I remember a phone call where he was telling me why he was missing work. I actually asked him if he had found a way to break the space-time continuum because his event chronology made no sense. He stopped showing up shortly thereafter I didn’t give it much thought. He had relapsed and was on meth again; this kind of thing happens a lot with construction workers and at that point in my life I had very little empathy for Leon. He was just another burn out, oh well. At least he didn’t steal from the company.

When I saw Leon last night looking strong and healthy and speaking coherently I gave him a huge hug and actually let out a little celebratory yell. I was SO excited for him. I didn’t talk to him long, but I really believe that Julie played a huge part in getting him back on track and healthy again.

We all have our demons and I fell a little ashamed that at 21 years old I looked at Leon the way I did. I felt like I had the world figured out and it was all black and white. If you wanted to be successful, you made good choices and stayed off drugs. If you were lazy and didn’t care then you would be poor and strung out and it was your own fault. Knowing Leon’s background and his struggles in childhood make me feel much differently about his addiction.

The beauty of mentoring and being involved with people who have different backgrounds than you is that you can access your empathy much easier. This is not to say that you have to accept drug use or other high-risk behaviors. I’m saying that it’s possible to exist in a spectrum of gray; emotional trauma can manifest in addiction or other behaviors that are mutually exclusive of a person’s core goodness. We don’t condone the behavior, but we don’t write off the person, either.

My great hope is that in 20 years, I’ll be talking to someone about my mentoring experience and tell them how RM has a great job and is a good father and how ES and I are better parents because of what RM taught us.

I love the transcendental poets and I keep thinking of Emerson’s Success when I was writing about the panel discussion. Even though I think I’ve seen it on posters that hang in break rooms with Thomas Kincade-esque backgrounds, I still find it beautiful. I want to leave it here, to meditate on it and to remind myself that my goal is to leave the world a bit better than it was.

What is Success?

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better, whether by
a healthy child, a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed
easier because you have lived;

This is to have succeeded.

Ralph Waldo Emerson