Mentoring Matters

After moving to Nashville, I kept trying to fill the void of knowing there’s something more I should be doing. I was restless with religion and church. We tried finding a church that fit us and switching a couple times over the years. I also jumped into the neighborhood association, donated blood on a regular basis, and we began foster care, among various other things. Of them all, foster care was the standout in what seemed to make a significant life-changing difference in someone’s life. Well, I suppose receiving blood when you have none could be pretty life-changing, too.

Around 2010-2012, there were a number of news stories about youth violence. This was about the time I stopped discussing politics on social media. Online arguing typically doesn’t make a positive difference in anyone’s life. I can’t learn empathy and awareness by simply holding on to my preconceived notions. Simply wishing these youth made better choices is about as effective as 13-year-old me wishing for a girlfriend to fall from the sky. Smugly saying that people deserve what they get and consequences are fair, certainly doesn’t help the innocent victims.

After seeing the stories, reading the stats, and hearing the cyclical nonsense of political mouths, I felt compelled to do something, specifically for male teens. But foster care wouldn’t do it since we agreed the kids would only be younger than our daughter who was then about 5.

At work, I had attended on two occasions a lunch-and-learn about Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS), pretty much for the free lunch (read: only for the free lunch.) I loved the concept but knew I didn’t have the time. On top of standard life events, I had a second job delivering pizzas. It was wise to only use my limited free time with my family. But I liked the concept so much, I even organized an event for the speaker to give the same presentation for our neighborhood.

In our Bible class, my wife was saying she felt worried and helpless when it came to terrorism. A friend of ours was reflecting on a Mother Theresa quote “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Then said to take the biggest problem you can think of, what’s the smallest thing you can do about it. That concept has been a constant encouragement ever since.

About the same time, the non-profit my wife works at started counseling new fathers and I really wanted to do that, too. But besides the fact that my regular work schedule wouldn’t allow me, I don’t think I fit the mold for being either young-and-hip enough or old-and-wise enough. So one day we’re chatting online about it:

me: “that’s awesome, i wanna help with fatherhood stuff. just don’t know how”
her: “I’d say signing up for big brothers big sisters is a start. we have 2 male counselors that are available to us, but we haven’t used them for a while, lately. I want you to tell me about BB/BS later.”
“what about?”
“just ask you about it.”
“what about it? Is it serious? Do I need to ask HR about something?
“what? just talk. bc you’re my husband. and we talk.”
“I thought you had a question like where to deliver a baby.”
“huh? no. not Blue Cross Blue Shield… BBBS. Not insurance, big brothers.”
“ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh! my bad. I had HR on speed-dial. Thought we were having a baby.”

My wife then had that conversation with me and it kicked me in the butt, which is about the only time I do something out of my comfort zone. The second job had come to a close. I had a friend who had already signed up as a mentor and suggested I do it as well. So, I sent the initial email and got the ball rolling.

I was impressed with the process and how thorough BBBS was. They do not take this lightly. A couple meetings, a lengthy interview, then paperwork and references (ones they really do call), and a background check. They care about making this successful. Many of the kids they’re matching have undergone some kind of loss. Most are in single parent homes or living with relatives. They don’t want to get the kid’s hopes up and be let down again.

They asked what kind of kid I thought I would fit well with. My first hesitation. I feared I’d get a kid that wanted to do nothing but play rough sports. I don’t mind a game or two, but please don’t make me run more than I have to. So I said maybe a shy kid, one that likes computers and movies. After being approved, it took a couple months to find the right Little for me, and I think they made a great choice. We’ve now been matched for 3 years.

He’s a great kid with a caring mom. We’ve done a little bit of everything: movies, YMCA, cooking, disc golf, museums, work on cars, shopping, watch games on TV, go out to eat, we’ve seen just about every sports team in Nashville, he helped us move… oh yeah. There was moving….

BBBS asked in the interview process if you’re planning any big events in the next year with the concern that a major life event will distract you from being able to get together. Foster care was the only thing I had thought about, and we talked at length about that. Little did I know that I would end up with foster kids (twice), competing in multiple speech contests which ended with me traveling to Malaysia for the Semi-Finals, running and campaigning for a city council position, my wife getting pregnant, and moving houses, neighborhoods, and churches. All within the first year of me and my Little getting matched. And I remember my petty excuse for not getting involved earlier: not having enough time.

But it’s like we say with having foster kids, they just become part of your routine. Part of your family life. It’s another entry on your calendar. BBBS asks for 4-12 hours a month. My Little and I average a few hours every couple weeks. Honestly, if you have time for TV, you have time for this. Even if you don’t have a lot of “TV time”, you just incorporate them into your life. I see him on lunch breaks, late at night, on the way from here to there. It all works out.

I wish I had a miraculous, life-transformational story about being a mentor, but I don’t. He was a good kid before I came along. I just hope to be another good influence. Someone to help him experience new and different things. Maybe throw in a life-lesson once in a while. Something as simple as last night’s trip to the indoor trampoline park, where we spent most of our time playing dodgeball. It was obvious most kids were either skipping line to play or not leaving when they got out. Not a big deal, it’s just a silly game. But it was an opportunity to talk about honesty.

Maybe something like that sticks. Maybe there will be a big moment where I get a call from him to help make a big decision. Maybe we’ll just be friends. But that’s one kid who I won’t let slip through the cracks. If I ever see him on the news, it’ll be for a good reason. This is the small thing I can do with great love.

If we all did this one small thing, it would certainly be a great thing.

Karma and the Law of Reciprocity

Karma, as we generally understand it, does not exist. How many times does it take to learn that it’s not going to happen? We’re tantrum-throwing children, stomping our feet screaming, “BUT?! I did good! Why is this happening to me?!”

It appears the stomach bug is making the rounds in our house. The baby had it on Sunday (all overnight of course), then my daughter on Thursday. Hers was actually overnight as well, but chose to go to the bathroom on her own, record the time, 1:30am & 4:15am, and let us know in the morning (have we raised the perfect kid?) Then my wife on Saturday.

I guess that leaves me….(dun dun duuuun!!)

Friday was a lovely day and she took the kids for a walk on the greenway, patting herself on the back for getting everyone some exercise and fresh air. Then the next day, barely able to sit up without getting dizzy, she jokes that this shouldn’t be happening cause she was trying to be healthy. And I totally get it. Instinctively you anticipate a reward for doing well. I suppose this is how we were raised: punished for poor choices, rewarded for good ones.

A couple weeks ago I had a similar reaction. School’s were still cancelled for snow. I made it into work early, got some stuff done, went to take my Big Brothers Big Sisters “Little” to lunch, ran into a guy I hadn’t seen in a while who was going through a tough situation and I hope I spoke some words of encouragement to him. On my way back, a car appeared to have broken down right in front of me and the guy was trying to push it across traffic into a gas station. I put my flashers on and helped him push it across. (You haven’t truly exercised till you have pushed a car).

This is where I beam with pride in my day’s accomplishments and wait for it to start raining money and candy from the sky.

I’m waiting…

Any moment now, I’ll get a surprise bonus.

Maybe they’ll call about that contest I entered.

I’ll settle for no traffic on the way home.

Still waiting…

Sadly, the rest of the night was pretty standard. Guess it could have been worse, like some kind of anti-Karma!

A couple years ago I had worked overtime a couple nights for a big project and had just wrapped up on a Saturday. I left to go unwind with friends at a restaurant. While taking the exit on a freshly drizzled off-ramp, I lost traction and flipped my truck. Um, dear Karma, you got it backwards. I worked hard and you forgot to reward me.

I do believe in natural consequences. Unfortunately, it seems negative consequences are more common than positive rewards.

Something inside us thinks that the world somehow owes us for doing a good deed. It’s only fair that I should be treated as well as I have done.

The Law of Reciprocity “basically says that when someone does something nice for you, you will have a deep-rooted psychological urge to do something nice in return.” Maybe “Law” is too strong of a word. If it were a Law, I suppose when I helped the guy push his car over I could’ve waited around for a little tip in return. But maybe it inspired him to do something nice later on that day. Maybe.

I typically feel great when someone does something nice for me. But not always. A compliment could make me feel awkward and shy. Someone paying for my meal could leave me feeling cheap or lower on the totem pole. I remember on a chorus trip, our director stopped the bus to ask a guy on the side of the road for directions. He insisted on showing his appreciation with a little cash, the guy tried to refuse and quite frankly appeared insulted by the offer.

So the cosmos doesn’t automatically reward us for positive actions. And people won’t necessarily return our good deed with one of equal or greater value. So why keep fighting the good fight?

You may still get a reward, just in a different form. Contentment. Satisfaction. A clear conscience.

This is how the golden rule got its gold.

Not: Do to others so that they will do the same to you

Not: Do to others as they have done to you

Do to others… whether or not they do, even if they don’t, even if they don’t deserve it, as if what they do doesn’t even matter… Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Whether you are rewarded is not the point. Whether you have been treated well thus far is not the point. Your goal is to be kind, be generous, be loving, regardless. This is true selflessness. It is not about you, it’s about how you are to others.


Do Something

I messaged my friend yesterday to give my condolences for losing someone he knew. A victim of gun violence. Another victim from a public housing complex downtown where this happens way too often. Do a search for the name of the complex and the results are a chronological listing of crime reports and news headlines. The shooting happened over a petty argument between two groups. Then someone grabbed a gun and shot twice.

You may have read that and sighed. My guess is that if you are picturing the victim in your mind already, you may be wrong.

The victim was a 14 year old girl. And one that was intelligent, sweet, involved, a leader, giving and thoughtful. One with an otherwise bright future. My friend was one of her mentors. Senseless violence is an understatement in this scenario. Even more so that the shooter was another girl that just turned 18.

Both are victims of our culture that seems to either allow or perpetuate this angry, prideful lifestyle more than try to change it. After any violent event there may be protests or talking heads demanding whatever it is they demand, but whatever they’re asking for isn’t working. Homicides in Nashville, after years of decline, have doubled this year. All of us are getting worked-up, scared, or cynical with this 24-hour, nation-wide news at our fingertips spewing today’s latest tragedy.

Even so, hearts haven’t changed.

It’s the only type of change that will actually make a difference, and the hardest one to make happen. Well, it is if you’re thinking of it on a grand scale. Maybe it’s my own cynicism but laws and national programs aren’t going to make a dent. But see, there’s this one person headed for a disastrous event. Could you give them hope, support, encouragement?

This 14 year old girl had that encouragement and hope. In an interview she said she dreamed of being a nurse, basketball player, or actress. She was known as a leader in her after school programs. When asked if she could change one thing in the world, what would it be? And in the worst twist of fate she answered “my neighborhood.”

Her path was on the right track. Her story was supposed to end better than this. She had people in her life giving her direction. My thoughts instead turn to the shooter. I wonder if her life was filled with the same words? If not, how did she fall through the cracks? Who could have stepped up and made that difference in her life? One where she might have at least given a second thought to finding a weapon to resolve her issues. Whether she found a gun, knife, stick, or fist, her heart was stubborn and cold.

It’s not good enough to simply be sad about this. It’s does this little girl’s life no justice to just get upset that it happened. If no one makes a tangible step, then the only expectation is that this will happen again tomorrow. (And surprise, it did).

This story shook me. I think it’s because of my “Little.” Over a year ago I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters for this very reason. I was frustrated. My choices were to remain frustrated, become apathetic, or do something. So I joined and they matched me with a bright, introverted, sweet kid. He’s also 14 years old. He lives near where the shooter lived.

The last time I dropped him off, a group of smaller kids were upset that his brother was hit (probably by accident) and one of them said “You gonna beat him up?!” I stayed a while to make sure it wasn’t serious, and it wasn’t. But I flashed back to that moment as soon as I heard about this girl. I don’t want the same thing to happen to my Little. I can help him, but who’s out there helping the other kids that he’s going to interact with? Who’s breaking the cycle for his shooter? (I got chills writing that question.)

You have to do something. All of this drama is meaningless. Why get upset? Why watch the news? Why pretend that you care if you don’t do something? Love without action is pointless. Don’t even call it Love.

We all have our various talents and interests, so the details of what we do are not going to look the same, but might I give a few (local) options:

Mentor. Big Brothers Big SistersBoys/Girls Clubs, Youth Encouragement Services

Foster Care. Agape, Bethany

Homeless: Nashville Rescue Mission. Many opportunities there.

Abused: Thistle Farms

After school programs

Your local church, and not just “going to church”. <- (See pointless above)

At the very least, donate. Items or money. You could donate specifically for the girl in this story (I didn’t want to be exploitative by using her name.) As long as you keep in mind that a donation is to assist the people making a difference, and that you having a personal relationship with someone has the strongest impact.

Be engaged with your own neighbors. Be a decent person in general, for Pete’s sake! Why is it rare to simply be polite and conversational in public?

There are countless other organizations. The opportunity is there. The need is most definitely there.

Our choral director in college would say, after a weekend trip working with youth groups, “You never know the good that you do.” He would hear the comments and get the emails from the host church, and share a few with us later on. Stories we otherwise wouldn’t have known. Impact we wouldn’t have known. Remembering that phrase helps cure my apathy. Think if by some domino effect you have already saved a life, and you just never knew the good that you did.

If you make an impact on one life, you have made all the difference to them.

Honor this girl’s life. Do something.