Who mentored you? It’s a question that I ask new “Big” volunteers when I interview them at Big Brothers Big Sisters. The answers are fascinating and widely varied: parents, relatives, teachers, coaches, scout leaders, family friends, neighbors, older siblings, friends both young and old, spouses, pastors, employers, co-workers, and on and on. Their answers always trigger memories about the school mentors I had in my own life when I was younger and most of all the host of relatives that lived nearby.
I feel lucky now that my parents decided to move back to Wisconsin to be closer to family when they married. Through the adults pooling their time, housing, food and energy, they exposed us to different activities and programs in various communities. They also were great at teaching us practical skills beyond just learning how to load the dishwasher correctly. My grandmother taught me how to sew. My uncles taught us every sport they could think of. And they all shared an appreciation for music.
Education and a strong work ethic were important with all my relatives. Many held down two or three jobs to take care of their families and only a few were able to afford college. At every family gathering the conversation around the lawn chairs or kitchen table would eventually turn to “the college lecture” as we cousins called it. Despite their inability to help fund our higher educations, there was never any doubt or leeway in our parents, aunts and uncles, and grandmothers’ minds that we would all graduate from high school and we would all go to college or a vocational training program.
With only four girl cousins compared to 11 boy cousins — us girls sometimes felt outnumbered but never excluded. My mom, aunts and grandmothers never lost a moment to remind us about the struggles they faced in the work force during the 1950s and 60s. My grandmother, supporting three children on her own, dedicated years to a company and still made less than her male counterparts. My mother was forced to quit her job as a flight attendant when she married. And even though they all had a similar story, they still kept going to work, fighting back when they could, so they could help put food on the table and presents under the tree.
As a child and a teenager I didn’t always appreciate the mentoring I received from my relatives. Sometimes it was a little too much like lecturing. Sometimes I just wanted to go play with my cousin’s new Atari. But it always left me with a feeling that I was cared about.
So now, as I listen to the Big volunteers talk about their mentors, I think about my relatives and wish that they were just a two-hour car ride away instead of a costly plane ride. I’ve learned from my job that we all have benefited from (and continue to benefit from) mentors: someone who is willing to teach us and support us for a short time or the long haul. They don’t do it for money. They do it because they care. And because, kids being kids, we don’t often tell our mentors “thank you” in a timely manner, I believe one of the best ways to show your appreciation for your mentor is to pay it forward and become a mentor yourself.
In Homer, we are lucky to have a wealth of opportunities to pick from where you can share your knowledge with a child or a teen or an adult. There are sports, community recreation, schools, music, arts and theater programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Homer Council on the Arts, Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, Pratt Museum, Kachemak Nordic Ski Club, Homer Cycling Club, Kachemak Bay Running Club, HoWL, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girls on the Run, Pier One, faith-based programs, Kenai Peninsula Youth Court, REC Room, and the list goes on and on. If you don’t feel you have the time to be a mentor or coach, make a donation or attend a fundraising event with one of these organizations. Research shows that donating and volunteering can improve your health and prolong your life.
Jenny Martin is a Big Sister, an aunt, a godmother, an adjunct teacher at Kachemak Bay Campus, a coordinator for Best Beginnings Homer early childhood education coalition, and the community director of Big Brothers Big Sisters in Homer. She’ll be away for three weeks this summer catching up with all her relatives in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. She may need a little vacation when she returns.