By Erin Argue, PFC Support Services Director
At the close of National Mentoring Month, I find myself reflecting on the conversations that have become such a large part of my job. Countless hours with these volunteer mentors, who, are so much more – they’re incredible humans compassion warriors, learned-to-be budgeting gurus, and good news celebrators.
Like Robert Frost mused, those of us on the road less traveled. The road where you can see thorns obstructing your way, and movement in the shadows. The road where the end is entirely obscured, and you aren’t sure if you’ll ever arrive. The road, that from the outside, looks terrifying, and uninviting; but you know, deep down, that there is no other road. The road that will change your soul, though it will never be about you.
“An opportunity for, maybe just once, even for a moment, to feel that things are OK”
From the outside, our Youth Empowerment and Success (YES) teen mentoring program is a hands-on opportunity for individuals in our Austin community to come together to support a teen in the foster care system at risk of aging out. This is simultaneously all that we do and nothing that we do. Much like the teens that we serve (and Walt Whitman), our mentoring program contains multitudes. It’s as much about a 15-year-old learning the art of budgeting, as it is for them to have their first boat ride. And, not just any boat ride, but a double-decker Bat Boat on Town Lake at sunset with pizza and dance parties. An opportunity for, maybe just once, even for a moment, to feel that things are OK. We are planting seeds of financial literacy and life skills, while also watering the garden that is connection and community. We are creating structure and providing nurture. Taking the road less traveled; the one where you swallow your pride and check your ego at the door for the opportunity to bask in the rays of goodness that radiate from these teens. Leaning in to the delusion that as adults we are the key holders to the answers of life’s great questions. Falling face-first into our first (and second, and third!) mess-ups, and taking the moment to apologize, allowing for a real-time demonstration of how to be humble and own our mistakes. We model the behaviors they will take into their next chapter while cultivating the relationships that could last a lifetime.
I can give you the statistics surrounding the success of our program. We have worked tirelessly to find ways to adequately convey, in statistical measurement, the effectiveness of mentoring, specifically YES Mentoring. But, how do you quantify a six-and-a-half-year-old-relationship that has seen the birth of a child, the loss of housing and jobs, the death of a close friend, and all of the other highs and lows that come as a part of existence? Of being human, of living a life that is not experiencing happiness all the time, because, happiness is an emotion and like all emotions intended to be experienced fleetingly. How do you avoid minimizing real-life experiences and hardships to checks in boxes, numbers on a screen, negating every single step that was taken one foot in front of the other, sometimes barely above a crawl, to get to a place where they can finally proclaim “Miss Erin, I finally feel like I have it figured out. Yes, I struggle, but I know that it is going to be OK.”? You cannot. (Well, you can, but giving numbers alone would be a disservice to every teen who has or will come through our program.)
“YES, I struggle, but I know it’s going to be OK”
Yes, I can tell you the tangible items we’ve provided to our youth, items that, at the moment, were just as impactful as the relationships we’ve helped grow. I can tell you that in 2019, we stepped up more than we ever have, and when no one else could (red tape, financial limitations, funding specifics, etc). We ranged from helping a 19-year-old (with her mentor) get an outfit to wear in court to face and testify against her father to helping a 22-year-old purchase driving hours to finally be able to get her ever-coveted Driver’s License. We’ve answered late-night phone calls from mentors and youth, shared hugs and tears over coffee, and collaborated with incredible non-profits in the Austin area we are so fortunate to sit at the table with. Behind each of these numbers and calls, is a person. A real, live, human being that has favorite foods, pet peeves, goals and aspirations. More than just a number or an item received. Someone who contains multitudes.
So, to accompany the percentages, and the financial statements we will continue to share the stories. The stories of those who risk turning 18 without the love, guidance, and support of a home base. Those who have moved their mentors in a way we could not prepare our mentors for. Creating what mentors have reported as being feelings of unconditional love and an overwhelming desire to watch these teens flourish, find themselves, and believe they are worthy. We are not the life-changers, we are just fortunate enough to be part of their life changes. We are those on the road less traveled.