Some days, we all could use a minute to step back and wipe our glasses clean enough with the edge of our t-shirt to see the world just a little more clearly. I have a few friends who help me do that. One is in the fourth grade. Two others are 10 and 14 respectively.
When I was a college sophomore, I signed up to volunteer with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, not quite sure what I was getting myself into. I wasn’t exactly qualified for the role. At the time, I was a theatre major with a minor in pranking and general shenanigans. But the frazzled social worker didn’t ask too many questions as she slid a brochure across the desk and told me I could start meeting my new little sister at her school during lunch.
A year later, we graduated to after school hangouts, meaning that she and I could troll the aisles of Walmart pointing out all the things we would buy if we had money and visiting the local pet shop to play with the puppies. I let her pick out the movie for our first slumber party, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which resulted in a really great night’s sleep for both of us (not).
Clearly, I was really good at this big sister thing. For three years, I’d finish up class and head to my little sister’s house, usually loud and filled with smoke from the kitchen where her mom baked fresh tortillas and made pupusa’s for dinner. Her family only spoke Spanish, which was perfect since I was studying French and grew up in south Alabama. Somehow, we bonded over time as I made phone calls to the school, interpreted bills that arrived in the mail, and gave rides to the social worker or doctor’s office.
They gave me an honest glimpse into the world of a Salvadorian family doing their best to adjust to life in a new country, trying to wrap their arms around the warm but foreign culture of this Virginia Blue Ridge mountain town. They were a family so ready to acclimate that they would open up their lives to a college student who regularly pulled up in their driveway with the top down on her Jeep, country music blaring, and let her have responsibility for their precious youngest child.
Fast forward a few years, and I was winding up a smoky stairwell in a corner of Southeast DC that I’d spent my early adulthood entirely avoiding. It was the kind of neighborhood that you don’t tell your mom you’re visiting until after the fact. I felt more than a little aware of my sparkly cardigan and snakeskin purse as I made way through a housing complex where residents have to earn less than $7,000 a year to qualify for housing.
I looked around at the cracked walls, and the bugs, and the mattresses on the floor, and realized I’d never spent much time in places like this before. But standing next to me was my new little sister, and in front of me her family greeted me with a warm smile and an open door into their home. We laughed when we realized that our sisters shared the same name. And that was it, we were on the same team. We were each other’s people.
The highlight of my next two years was my friendship with this teenaged girl and her family. We passed the seasons side by side, trick or treating on Capitol Hill, shopping for new school clothes, sharing giant chocolate chip cookies from our favorite corner cafe, celebrating birthdays and holidays, and celebrating average Saturday mornings. When I made the move from DC to Atlanta, the only time I cried when I broke the news to her and her younger sister.
It took a few months to settle into life in a new city, but it wasn’t long before the itch to mentor began to surface. These days, I spend many of my Saturdays hanging out with one of the sweetest fourth graders you’ll ever meet. She’s my walking buddy on the BeltLine trail that winds through Atlanta, and I’m her sidekick to go meet Santa. I make her grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, and she makes me homemade jewelry. She knows my friends by name, and I love her family. We share whatever we have with each other, even if it’s just a stick of chewing gum.
Over and over, she’s helped nudge my head upwards when I get a little too self focused (which inevitably happens a LOT when you’re in your twenties.) She is a continual reminder to be kind, to be generous, and to be joyful. She makes those things look easy. I can’t wait to see the woman she’s going to grow into, and I feel so privileged to have a seat at the table in her life.
When I started out as a big sister at the age of 19, I didn’t have any concept of what that might look like over time. I’m sure that in the back of my mind, I thought I was doing a favor for someone else. I didn’t realize that I was being given the immeasurable gift of joining in with the lives of others – others who’ve had much more to teach me than I could have ever taught them. Others who constantly and gently clarify that life isn’t actually about me, and that the real goodness comes from those unexpected moments of joy that happen just from being together.
Mentoring has become a core value that is so close to my heart, I can’t really picture my life without it. And I wouldn’t want to. I could only wish this same richness for everyone else. If you’re not a mentor in some capacity, today might be the day to change that. Because, yes, there are kids out there who need someone to look up to. But also because, you just might find that you need them too.