Three weeks ago, Chris and I sat on a bench in Nomad Gardens, a community garden in Mission Bay, watching a significant moment in the life of Braid quietly unfurl in front of us. After months of researching, planning, recruiting, building, training, and cultivating, Braid’s mentoring program was officially beginning. There was no pomp and circumstance, just two women gathered around a tiny garden plot with a 12-year-old girl, planting seeds.
Twelve years ago, I was matched up with my first Little Sister (through Big Brother Big Sister). Janelle* was 11 when we were matched. She was a bright, spirited girl who wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. Janelle and I had fun together and did lots of things that were “firsts” for her: hiking, camping, making ice cream. At the local amusement park, we helped each other conquer our fears – I dragged her into the haunted house, and she dragged me onto the Tilt-o-whirl.
A few months after I was matched with Janelle, I invited her to my new house to help paint one of the rooms, a small space that had been converted from what used to be a mud porch. We had decided to paint it a bright, hopeful, yellow. Janelle took to the task with great enthusiasm, and soon everything was covered in yellow paint: the floor, her clothes, and my dripping walls. While it would have been faster, easier, and cleaner to paint that room myself, I took a deep breath, recognized that this was yet another a new experience for her, and got out another roll of paper towels.
After a couple years, as Janelle entered fully into being a teenager, hanging out with a Big Sister stopped having as much appeal for her. After the third time I pulled up to Janelle’s house for our scheduled outing and she wasn’t there, I called my case manager at BBBS. She said it was time to “terminate” our match. And that was that. A few weeks later I was matched with another Little, this one from a more challenging family situation – a mom who was mentally and physically disabled, a dad who had died in prison, and a stepfather who was bad news.
Ellen* and I did a lot of the same type of fun activities I had enjoyed with Janelle, but before long she was starting to have trouble in school, so I talked to her teacher to see if there were ways I could help. It was an uphill battle – at age 8, Ellen had announced to me that she was “the best reader in her family,” which included her older brother. There was no one at home who could help her with her schoolwork, and I wasn’t available every day. Ellen’s trouble soon moved beyond school. After she threatened a classmate who had said something ugly about her mom, Ellen had to appear in court. I went with her.
As Ellen’s challenges grew, I started to feel like I could use more reinforcement. I had thought we would be baking cookies, not practicing times tables. I wanted to see Rock City, not juvenile hall. These things were “firsts” for me. My family and friends didn’t have much experience in these areas, either. My case manager told me that I had an especially challenging case, and she gave me a pep talk when I called in to report. But ultimately I was on my own. I felt responsible and anxious and overwhelmed.
When I left for seminary, my relationship with Ellen was officially “terminated,” but I continued to get updates from her mom every now and then. The last time I heard from them, they were going to court again – this time, because Ellen had been sexually assaulted, at age 12, by a man who found her on the internet. Soon after that they moved and changed their telephone number, and I lost touch with their family. I felt like I had let Ellen down and there was little I could do, especially from several states away, as her life became increasingly difficult.
What I learned in those years was that mentoring can get messy: sometimes in a way that a little paint thinner and some elbow grease can fix, but sometimes in a way that tears your heart in two.
As Chris and I spent all those weeks and months envisioning Braid’s mentoring program, I often thought back to my time as a Big Sister. I remembered the fun times, but I also remembered the great weight of responsibility I felt for both of those girls. And I remembered how much I had needed someone to walk through all of that with me, both the good and the bad. It was one of the reasons why we decided that Braid mentors would work in teams.
In her second week at the garden, the young lady who is being mentored by that first team asked if she could decorate a flower pot she found in the garden shed. It seems to be a theme: middle schoolers don’t skimp on the paint. As I watched lime green paint dripping down the sides of that flower pot and spreading, once again, to hands, clothes, everything, I remembered watching another 12-year-old girl dancing and laughing and turning my house yellow. I headed into the garden shed to find some paper towels.
It reminded me that the work of mentoring isn’t any different than when I was a Big Sister. Like me, our mentors are full of love and good intentions and fortitude. They are eager to make a difference in the life of a child. Unlike me, though, they don’t have to do that work alone.
When seeds start to sprout in that lime green flowerpot, they will rejoice together. If some of those seeds don’t grow, they will grieve together, and they will regroup. If things get challenging when that young lady hits her teenage years, their team facilitator will encourage them, and they will encourage each other, to keep going, not to quit. If – God forbid – they ever have to meet at juvenile hall instead of the garden, their teammates, their team facilitator, Chris and I will go with them.
I often wonder what happened to those two girls that I still love deeply all these years later. And though I long ago had to forgive myself for not singlehandedly making their lives easier, I confess to wondering at times how things might have gone better if I’d reached out for help more, if I’d stuck it out. My hope for our mentors is that they never have to do that wondering, that the seeds they are planting this summer will grow deep roots, in relationships that last for years because they are nurtured and sustained in community.
*names have been changed