by Aïssatou Sidimé-Blanton
In June, my husband, Stewart and I, were recognized for our years of mentoring with an organization we love, Big Brother Big Sisters (BBBS). It was a true surprise to receive the 2015 United Way Volunteer of the Year Award in the Community Service-Family category for being mentors to now 7 children during nearly two decades! The award, which is open for nominations from any charity, is meant to signify that we were the most worthy family of volunteers in our area for the last year. Yet, I know from my years of living in San Antonio that there are lots of families doing much more as volunteers and for a lot longer time periods.
Still, I accepted the recognition as a reminder that gifts are meant to be shared and that we should not ignore that urge to give. I’m Lutheran now but was raised Catholic by an aunt who was always cooking or cleaning for some church function, or tutoring some struggling child for free, or being a sounding board for everybody’s woes, because she believed that we are closer to God’s plan when we give of ourselves to others.
The message sunk in. I get an urge to volunteer, a niggling in my brain that I’m not doing all I can and should do, when I’m idle more than a few months. That urge prompted me to start mentoring with BBBS in college and then to keep tracking down the local BBBS branch in every city I’ve lived as a working adult.
Of all the volunteer options available, I choose to mentor young people because someone mentored me when I needed it. Three responsible adults took me under their wings at different crucial moments in my life as a child. At that time in my life, I’d been homeless twice, was “in love” and flirting shamelessly with a high school boy who lived nearby, and generally ticked with my mother most days – basically a recipe for disaster. I am certain that if they – who were not my parents and so had no social or legal obligations to me – had not done so I would have made some bad choices as a hormone-raging adolescent or been placed in some devastating situations. My “neighbors” in our global village caught me and kept me on the straight path. Now, I do the same.
And it really doesn’t take much time to have a positive impact in a child’s life: 1 hour a week or 2-3 hours twice a month. Nor does it require lots of money; I typically incorporate my Little (the BBBS term for a mentee) into everyday activities I already have planned, such as going to the library to borrow a book, tending the flower beds, watching the big game, or going to a volunteer activity. (Although I have taken them to plays, ballet performances, gala dinners, – even just a sit-down restaurant – as a way of exposing them to experiences not available at home.)
Research – and my life – shows that mentors have the biggest impact by spending time consistently, and by talking with each child about what to consider when making a decision, where to get reliable information, how to problem solve, how history and society have played a role in our habits and traditions, and how other cultures address the same issues. In many cases, my Littles’ single, overworked, generally minimum-wage earning mothers had little time, energy, money or experiences to do that work. Or the typical mother-daughter baggage was hindering the relationship. So I get to help out mom, give her a respite, and give the Little a chance to express herself without fear of retribution. And we have fun!
Plus, mentoring can have unexpected benefits: It introduced me to my husband – twice. We first met at one of the monthly mixers that BBBS organizes with the help of local business owners as a way to give mentors a chance to relax, ask any burning questions of one another, and network. I saw Stewart and thought, “He’s cute,” from across the lobby of the bar and maneuvered my way over to chat, but after that 15 minutes I didn’t see him again. Then months later, when I began dating again via an online service, I screened for men who valued volunteering and giving back to their communities. Stewart, who was on the same website, had listed the same values. He recognized me immediately –although it took me a few days for his photos to ring a bell for me.
Relationships are innately about sharing. I get to share this important part of my life with a man who really gets it! We’re so grateful, we had our wedding guests donate to BBBS instead of buying us more stuff we really didn’t need or want. Their donations helped fund the administrative expenses for 2 mentoring relationships for a full year!
Ultimately, as my husband’s says, “We’ve been blessed and want to give back because we know the value of having a positive influence in life.” And that makes everything right in my brain.