Wednesday, December 23, 2015

We are not our labels--a renewed perspective for the Holidays

So it makes sense that, working for a nonprofit, our boss would give us designated paid "time off" each month to volunteer. And it makes sense that I would spend those precious volunteer hours mentoring (no-brainer).

What never ceases to amaze me though is how much I gain as a volunteer mentor for Trusted Mentors. I've been a social worker for going on twenty years (seriously)---and I find that the mentoring relationship is especially unique. Yes, my background gives me certain insights into addictions, domestic abuse, homelessness, and other social issues that our mentees (and some mentors) have faced. Still, there is nothing quite like the experience of walking alongside someone down their rocky and well-beaten path.

Mentoring my new mentee is no different. She is a vision of strength and fortitude. Looking at her, you see a young, attractive, highly energetic woman. Her energy and style make her seem younger than her chronological age. When I met her at Salvation Army Shelter for Women and Children, I liked her immediately. One of the first things she said to me was something like, "Are you sure you're ready for me?" I'm thinking, “Do you have any idea what my "normal" life even looks like lately?...and yes, I'm sure."

The beginning of our relationship was a virtual download of her life---addictions and failed relationships, peppered with hopes and dreams. She said that she felt "safe" telling me anything. She would preface some of her musings with, "Are you sure you don't have to tell anybody this stuff?"

 "Yes, I'm sure--as long as you're not a harm to yourself or others." Okay, good, here comes another download.

And I have been more than happy to be present for her, to be an active listener, an encouraging voice, a cheerleader, a believer in her own hopes and dreams (even when she's not so sure). "You can do this. You are not alone. You are stronger than you think." These are my mantras.

I realize that these are also my own mantras. You see, she and I are really not so different. We are both fundamentally women, we are mothers, we are partners/wives, we are both high energy and highly motivated. We both have our "demons," our "triggers," our "old ways" of thinking and doing. We are both on a life path filled with hopes and dreams that include being a good parent and making a difference in the lives of others.

I had the pleasure just last week of taking my mentee out to lunch for her birthday. We started off with a birthday hug, when she proclaimed that "that was my first birthday hug!" We enjoyed a hamburger at Bru Burger because, living down the street in the shelter, she smells the wafting scents of the restaurant daily and has developed quite the craving. At the end of our lunch, before I parted to return to work, I told her that I not only saw her as my mentee, but also now as my friend. I told her that she and I are not so different. You see, she is not a jumbled mass of labels--homeless, ex-felon, mentally ill, addict--and neither am I. We are, at a basic level, both human. We share laughter and tears, she's getting to know my struggles as well, and she loves to share her own advice.

It's only been a couple of months, but I feel like I've known her forever. Our relationship is authentic. She knows she can be real with me (and vice versa). All I have to do is listen and encourage. If you can do these things for another adult trying to stabilize their life, please consider being a volunteer Trusted Mentor.  I promise, your life will be enriched.

 By Shelley Landis, Mentor Match Manager and Volunteer Mentor