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Aug 13, 2015 | Diana Dawson

Commitment Is Watchword for Mentors


[Diolog Magazine] On her last day of second grade, my little friend furiously scribbled numbers on notebook paper, wrinkled her brow and looked up.


“I’ll throw your 100th birthday party,” she proclaimed. “I’ll be 51 then. And this is what I’ll do.” She pushed aside her plastic lunch tray with her trusty chocolate milk and half-eaten pizza, hopped up on the elementary school library table before I could stop her and threw her arms in the air: “To Diana, my mentor for life.”


As this school year begins, the girl I mentor and I will begin our fourth year together. We became a pair when St. David’s, Austin, launched an arm of the national Kid’s Hope program, which promotes one church being paired with one school, one mentor with one child, meeting for one hour every week. In the last three years under the strong lay leadership of parishioner Kathy Labinski, our program has grown from four to 18 parishioners. Every one of them has his or her love story to tell. They know how much catsup their kid eats on the fries of a Happy Meal, worry about whether this one will ever read on grade level and that one will get the swim lessons needed to keep her safe. 


Because the girl I mentor has become one of the strongest students in her class, we don’t worry about subtraction or sentence structure. I simply show up to let her know that another adult in the world loves her and believes in her. We’ve played word games together, drawn pictures, formed flowers out of Play-Doh, tossed a ball, read about Pete the cat and made Christmas presents for her mother. I know she loves orange Tic Tacs, has outgrown Hello Kitty but not One Direction and likes the color blue best. After her older brother died, she’s a mother bear about her younger one.


When we began our relationship, this bright girl talked about her future in terms of cutting hair or working in a restaurant because that’s what she knew. My heart skipped a beat when she first asked if I could still be her mentor in college, too, and then suggested I stick around to mentor her when she got married and had kids and a cat.


It’s not always easy. In the last five months of school this year, she went into foster care and moved from our usual school to four others. Each time I’ve tracked her down, worked with the counselor and continued to show up for our weekly lunch. She’s been through the paces of being the new kid in school too many times. To smooth the last transition, I brought cupcakes for the class to celebrate her upcoming summer birthday, customized with her request of blue icing on chocolate and yellow icing on vanilla.


I had to leave Kids Hope because I was outside of that one school-one church relationship, so I became certified by two different school districts. A week after she arrived at her third school, she ran down the hallway and jumped into my arms. “I thought you’d lost me,” she said, burrowing her head into my shoulder. The most recent school she attended tests the bounds of commitment. It’s 40 minutes one way and means that I work at least one night each week to make up for the time. But I know I may be the only consistent, stable adult in her young life. I’m committed to the kid and I’m sticking with her until she tells me to go away.


At the end of every year, I want to give her the space to say she’s outgrown me so I say, “With each new school year, you get new pencils, eraser, papers, books and a new teacher. You may have a new mentor, too, if you’d like. What do you think?”


At the end of second grade, I got the offer to host my 100th birthday party. On the last day of third grade, she simply pressed her finger against my lips and shook her head as I began my annual spiel.


“Shhhh,” she said, flashing a grin. “Only you.”      


Dawson is the Director of Community Engagement at St. David’s, Austin.