by Andrew M. Mecca, Dr.P.H.
As an enthusiastic advocate for the California Mentor Initiative and its most enthusiastic champion, it frequently occurs to me that we have one of the easiest recruitment programs in the history of progressive social reforms.
While we have witnessed mentoring become the most effective device to help kids gain confidence and self-esteem in their return to sane and healthy lifestyles, we have also witnessed a phenomenon we could never have anticipated accurately.
Time after time, case after case, the mentors who are assisting their young mentees come to us and report how much they themselves have gained from the experience. While it's impossible to construct a consistent prototype of the "average" mentor, it's fair to say that most of them are well-educated, at least moderately successful, and possessed of a social consciousness that nudges them into the public fray to contribute to the community's greater good.
Because they are good citizens acting on their awareness to give back to society -- and this is their driving motivation -- it really doesn't occur to them at the beginning of their work that they, too, will gain from the experience.
For all of us trying to orchestrate this great symphony of rippling effects and healing currents, it provides a wonderful sense of gratification to witness the testimony of mentors who emerge from the experience eager for further involvement.
In our efforts to reinvigorate California one child at a time, there is no greater blessing for us than to see the cycle of mentoring solidified and completed through a functional and fully reciprocal mentor/mentee relationship.
The ease with which this dynamic is created can be attributed to the fact that this is not a dramatic rescue mission. It is, rather, a calm process whereby the mentor introduces the protege to his own vast potential.
Take the case of Ben, a Mill Valley financial consultant who has been working as a mentor to a young man named Carlos, a former Mission District gang member who's been long alienated from his alcohol-wracked family, discarded and disenfranchised since early childhood.
When Ben took on the assignment of shepherding Carlos into a life that would have more meaning, it struck him that Carlos already possessed most of the smarts and savvy that Ben's colleagues in the Financial District had long displayed as successful professionals. Ben knew that, save for a few twists of fate and ill fortune, there was a very thin line between the world of Carlos and the world of thriving prosperity.
Ben also recognized early on that Carlos was a gift -- a quiet, reflective young man who drew from a deep well of brilliant creativity. Driven downward and inward from neglect and parental abuse, he found strength from the quiet recesses of his inner soul. Once Ben was able to tap into this powerful reservoir of personhood, he was able to set Carlos free from his demons.
In dealing with Carlos, Ben remembered a talk he once had with a minister when he and his wife were pregnant with their first child. The minister had told them that while parenthood was a great challenge, remembering one thing would make the job extremely easy. That one thing was the acceptance and recognition that every child is a gift.
Says Ben today: "I have lived by that simple rule every day of my parenting life, and I am extending the same spirit to Carlos. It covers everything, from showering the individual with affection to learning to communicate honestly on all levels; from never trying to control the person to always being mindful of his needs; from accepting the person for who he is to learning how to share tough-love pearls of wisdom."
Ben says his influence upon Carlos has given the young man the kind of confidence he's needed to make it on his own away from the lawlessness of gang involvement. He's enrolled in art classes, and he's even sold some oil paintings depicting Mission District family life at street fairs. On weekends, Carlos helps coach young kids' soccer teams.
This is why Ben signed on as a mentor, to make a difference in a young man's life, but he's still in awe over how much he has gained from the experience himself. Not only does he enjoy the ongoing friendship with Carlos, but he also feels enriched by the success of their partnership, a richness he can bring to his own family and one that wraps him in a very happy and warm aura of well-being.