Thursday, January 18, 2018

Mentoring month

January is National Mentoring Month. I found out from the Facebook page of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Capital Region, with which I have volunteered as a mentor (or a "Big") for almost 6 years.

The post suggested that to celebrate, we should thank a mentor, share our own mentoring stories, and encourage others to become mentors.

I've shared my story before, but it's probably worth sharing again.

I became a mentor because I was going through a difficult time in my life. Volunteering seemed to be a good way to distract myself from all the things I felt were going wrong. A friend suggested to me that volunteering as a Big might be a good idea.

It turned out to be the best advice anyone has ever given me.

To find out how to become a Big, I started at the website. I clicked the "volunteer" button and I was off and running. The application process was long - I'm not sure it's changed much. I had to answer a lot of questions, do a phone interview, answer some more questions, then go to an in-person interview. From there I signed off on a background check that was fairly extensive and I provided 4 personal references (a family member, a friend, a co-worker, a boss - if I remember correctly), all of which I know were checked. I see a counselor and I had to have a medical sign-off from him. I think it took about a month for that to be completed - then I had to be matched.

The matching process took a little bit of time. My Match Specialist contacted me with a few more questions, related to everything from race to disabilities (my own and others) and neighborhoods. I was honest - because the last thing I wanted to do was be matched with someone who wouldn't like me, or for whom I couldn't live up to the expectations.

Speaking of expectations... A lot of people think the whole mentor thing is a big time commitment. It's really not. My commitment is 2 outings a month and 2 phone calls a month (on non-outing weeks). Outings can be simple, and at first, they recommend you keep them short and close to home, while everyone (Big, Little, and parents) gets used to this new idea.

As far as how long you're committed... That sort of depends on your Little's age. My Little just turned 17 and she will age out of the program next year. That will end my commitment to BBBSCR (though I'd like to think I will still be in touch with my Little on our own). Your commitment could also end sooner. I had a match before this that had to be terminated after only a couple of years.

But they do ask that once you are matched, you give it at least a year. It takes time to get to know someone, and it can feel awkward at first. If you bailed at the first uncomfortable outing, you'd never make it past a month. But trust me - given time, it will improve and then develop into something awesome.

You're not alone, either. You have a Match Support Specialist that checks in with you, your Little, and your Little's parent(s) each month. After a year, these check-ins are done quarterly. The specialist is available at any point for questions and guidance.

There's other support too. There's a Facebook page for active Bigs where ideas for outings are shared. There's a monthly email with even more suggestions and reminders of ongoing activities and discounts. BBBSCR also hosts a few outings a year (like a holiday party and an a back to school picnic) that provide a chance to meet other matches. The chance to talk to other Bigs is a great help! Plus a free outing now and then doesn't hurt.

Speaking of which... Money. Big and parent(s) should share in the cost for outings. I do everything I can to find discounts and keep the cost to a minimum. My Little's mom sends her out with money on some outings and I let her contribute, which helps. Never be afraid to talk money. It will come up at the match meeting and everyone agrees that this isn't supposed to be a financial hardship. Outings don't have to be expensive either - I've taken my Little for a walk in the park and we've had a great time for free.

There's plenty of stories around about how the Littles (or mentees) benefit from these relationships. Kids in the program are less likely to do drugs, have trouble in school. They are more likely to go to college. That's all amazing.

But mentors? We get so much more. We get the chance to make a difference - a real, measurable difference - in someone's life. We touch a child and that whole family. More importantly, at least for me, our confidence grows, we become more outgoing, we make new friends, and we feel good.

The best part is, anyone can be a mentor - and everyone should.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Surviving traditions

The holidays really stress me out. For a while I thought it was just me. I thought I was this strange anomaly of a daughter / niece / cousin / friend who couldn't find the joy in running from obligation to obligation, in lousy weather, while I bleed money, during the busiest time of my work year. 

Back in December, I went to talk with my counselor (yep, still have one of those) who assured me I was not alone. In fact, I had trouble making a January appointment because he was over-booked... due to the holidays.

We talked about traditions and how difficult it can be when they change. Whether it's decorating, or gifts, or meals, or whatever... even if it's stressful, most people have trouble letting go. In fact, he told me that for many people, changing a tradition can be even more stressful than the tradition itself.
My traditions have changed so much over the last 10 years, I'm at the point where I've stopped
counting on them. I feel like my only constant at the holidays is not knowing what will happen, where I'll be, or who will show up.

You know what I have found? That's OK with me. 

I used to think traditions made me feel better. That I found joy in being sure about what, where, and who. Then, things shifted and it was out of my control, and I realized... that wasn't making me happy at all.

What keeps me happy is knowing that everyone else is happy. Meeting everyone else's expectations, keeping them satisfied and comfortable - that's what matters to me.

I started to accept that I can't make others happy, I can only let them be happy. So - even though it's a little frustrating on the fourth Tuesday in November that I have no idea where I'm eating in two days... it's what makes everyone else happy, and that is OK. 

I remind myself of a couple of things:

  • I know where I won't be - at my apartment. I just have to show up somewhere.
  • If I don't get an invite, I can always get sushi. 
It isn't easy letting go of traditions that have been around since childhood. I still struggle with it sometimes. But I have found it can be a relief to not worry about making others happy and let them do that for themselves. It was also a little empowering to realize that letting traditions change means you can start to carve out your own, new traditions that really honor what you want to celebrate in your life. What's more, allowing letting things go leaves me free to change things up for myself, because my life is definitely not done changing.

Once you open yourself up to the idea that change is OK - suddenly, traditions (or lack thereof) don't seem so bad.