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A Two-way Street

Not all mentors realize success in their programs. But the ones who do marvel at the perks they didn't anticipate--like finding growth themselves. In their own words--and in response to a recent story--readers tell of the experiences they've had.

June 09, 1997

'You're Pretty Much on Your Own'

I am a dropout from the Fox mentor program, the subject of your article.

While there are some close relationships among the Fox mentors and mentees, I think that for a great many of the mentees, the program represents an opportunity to get out of class and get a free lunch (90% order double bacon cheeseburgers from the commissary grill), as well as extra goodies that are handed out several times a year (T-shirts, etc.).

Aside from an initial two-hour orientation and some written material, no guidance is offered to the mentors. No sessions are scheduled where the mentors can share problems or experiences with other mentors. You're pretty much on your own. I also felt the leadership, largely African American, to be cliquish and culturally insensitive. Last year, a training session was scheduled on one of the Jewish High Holidays and the leadership had a "tough luck" attitude until pressure was exerted to schedule a makeup session.

I finally dropped out of the program because, although cordial enough, I didn't feel I could communicate effectively with my mentee. She stood me up on several occasions, even though I asked her to call me, even at the last minute, if she was going to miss a session. I left messages on her machine at home and she never returned my calls.

Yet, whenever I got together with her she was very friendly and shared some of her problems with me.

I think it is dangerous to look at a mentor program as a means to solve large-scale institutional social problems. I think relationships can develop that influence individual mentees, but I think its main achievement is to expose middle-class professionals to how the other half lives.

These kids are as traumatized as kids growing up in Bosnia. My mentee lost a favorite aunt to drugs the year before I met her. Her mother was raising the aunt's 6-year-old twins, who were wild and made living at home unpleasant for the mentee. While I was meeting with my mentee, her ex-boyfriend, whom she was still occasionally seeing, was murdered execution-style.

During the scheduled sessions on college admission, sex education, etc., my mentee invariably fell asleep. I don't know if it was from lack of sleep at night or depression. It's hard to imagine growing up under these circumstances.

And the kids in the Fox program are the achievers, not the "at risk" kids. They have to maintain a high GPA to stay in the program.

Name withheld

by request

'I Grew in Ways I Never Could Have Imagined'

In 1979 I was matched with a 9-year-old Little Sister, Jennifer, in the Washington, D.C., area where I lived at the time. After a year or two, we seemed to fall through the structural cracks of the Big Sisters organization, but I maintained my commitment to Jennifer and continued to mentor her. Her circumstances were quite grim.

There were times when I considered ending the relationship. But Jennifer's plight, her frightened, sad eyes every time I returned her to her home, compelled me to stick with her.

In 1984 I received a job offer in Southern California, one I couldn't, and didn't, refuse. Jennifer, nearly 15 at the time, was devastated. Shortly thereafter, she ran away from home. Within a couple of months, I was called by the police in South Carolina, where she had ended up in dire straits. Although terrified at the prospect, and knowing it would unalterably change my life, I made the decision to take Jennifer into my home.

The next few years were tumultuous, to say the least. Single, in my 40s with zero parental experience and a dedicated career woman, I was suddenly faced with a moody teenager who had had 15 years' learning from a manipulative mother how to push every emotional button. And push mine she did. But the joys far outweighed the challenges. I grew in ways I never could have imagined, and Jennifer brought an unbelievable richness and texture to my life.

There is a great deal more to this mentoring saga, much of which should be told from Jennifer's perspective. But today, my "soul daughter" is a happily married woman with a daughter of 8 and a 13-year-old stepson, living outside Pittsburgh, Penn. And I, who was abandoned by my own mother at the age of 13, was given the ultimate opportunity to heal my own wounds by learning to mother--and then grandmother in a way I had never known for myself.

Who said mentoring is a one-way street?

PENELOPE LONGBOTTOM

Redondo Beach

'My Goal Was to Help Her . . . Graduate'

I have been working as a paralegal in the downtown legal community for many years. I heard that Arco had a well-organized program in which employees went to downtown schools once a week.

I joined the group, started working with a girl named Meibel at a downtown high school. She was a senior who lacked basic reading and comprehension skills. My goal was to help her finish her senior year and graduate.

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