It Starts With Love

Summer is winding down and school is around the corner. I’ve been thinking about my beloved mentor kids a lot recently. I have had the privilege of talking about mentoring to a couple of potential new mentors.

I’ve done some critical evaluation and attempted to understand why some mentoring relationships make it and some don’t and I’ve narrowed it down to something important:

It Starts With Love.

You can’t succeed at mentoring if your heart isn’t in it.

This isn’t the kind of deal where you can be punching a ticket, trying to fulfill a community service requirement, maybe seeing if you can’t impress someone, or just looking for something to fill an empty time slot.

If that’s what you need, find a food pantry to volunteer in or a community garden that needs to be cleaned. But don’t halfway commit to something as important as mentoring a fatherless child.

In other words, don’t be that guy. Don’t be that guy to these kids. Don’t be like the parent who comes and goes as they please in and out of a kid’s life and leaves them wondering whether or not Dad really loves them. Don’t be the uncle who shows up to have fun and then disappears for months sometimes years. Kids deserve better than that. They need consistency.

And if this relationship isn’t a labor of love for you, it’s just going to fail. I’ll go ahead and save everyone the time and energy now.

On the flip side, I will tell you that there are many ways that it can work out if you really do come from a position of love. You don’t have to sign up for a multi-year contract. Maybe you’re just the right person for the right period of time and then you both move on. Don’t get so caught up in worrying about how it will end that you never step out and try.

By all means, mentor kids and pour into communities. Our society needs compassionate individuals who genuinely care about others. The point here is that love is the answer. Love is always the answer.

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My Name Is

Before I ever became a parent and later a mentor, I had one name.

Actually, that’s not true. I was the guy who had many names. Most of them were nicknames I attempted to give myself because I thought they were cool.

“Hey Everybody. My new nickname is Legend!” Yep, I was (and still am) that guy.

Okay, so that’s not true either. Because, aside from all the nicknames I gave myself, I also had all the ways that people botched my name: Warren; Wagner; Wanner; Willard; I think you get the idea.

And then I have those completely ruthless friends that would no longer call me by my proper name but instead called me “Wagner” or even shortened it to “Wags”.

Okay, so I had my name and then the multiple butchered variations of my given birth name. And I also had the nicknames I gave myself.

Then some time after I became a parent, I became pretty comfortable with being known as “Delton’s Dad”. I began to respond to things like, “Excuse me, Mr. Delton’s Dad, I need some help in here.”

Of course I would respond to that. It was my name.

Once I started going into local schools and mentoring, I wasn’t “Delton’s Dad”. At that time, he wasn’t even school age. But obviously, I wasn’t a teacher or a coach, so what was I doing there?

That’s when kids began to know me as “Robert Earl’s Mentor” and refer to me as “Mr. Warner”, because I’m just not comfortable with being called Mr. Phelps and I don’t know if I ever will be.

In one of the books I had to read for a class, they talked about all the different roles you fill in life. I’d mention the book by name if I could remember which one it was and I am really not sure if I am combining ideas from multiple books. Anyway, if the idea is new to you, I thought it up all by myself.

Some of the names I’ve earned in life are far better than others. Dad is obviously my favorite. But all the friends I’ve made along the way who remember me as “Mentor” hold a pretty special place in my heart.

Wherever you are, there is a kid out there looking to learn your name and wanting to tell you theirs and be your friend. They’re looking for someone to become a part of their life. It’s actually pretty easy, all you have to do is walk up to them and say, “Hi. My Name is _____________”

Go Be That Person

I have heard from two different sources that I’m not supposed to use the word “that” in anything I publish. Supposedly it’s superfluous. By the way, since I have a big vocabulary and can use words like “superfluous” in a sentence without having to even stop and look it up, I’m exempt.

I have been trying to understand all the reasons that people don’t get involved in mentoring. I mean, I don’t know who these mystery people are that don’t enjoy the shrill pitch of 9 and 10 year olds squealing for just about any reason at all, but I believe they are out there.

And what I have learned is that for some it is intimidating, but it just doesn’t have to be. I realize that I’m beginning to sound like your mother but I think you’re perfect just the way you are.

What people forget is that kids don’t need you to be JJ Watt or Lebron James or whatever other relevant athlete/celebrity that kids look up to. Think about it for just a minute. Who were the heroes you worshipped growing up? It doesn’t really matter what generation you grew up in, you very likely learned as an adult that the hero you thought so highly of as a kid was someone you shouldn’t emulate at all. Wasn’t it Mickey Mantle himself who said, “Don’t be like me.”

The point is that you ARE perfect just as you stand (or sit) ((or lay down in bed reading this)). What do you like to do? What are your hobbies? Go find a kid who has interest in that and share that with them. Do you like to read? Find a kid who also likes to read (because I can almost assure you they have been made to feel like they don’t fit in) and ask them if they want to be in your special cool book club. Or maybe you are the real life Uncle Rico and didn’t catch your big break and think about football all the time. I’m willing to bet there is a kid somewhere in your neighborhood or apartment complex that would enjoy catching your perfect spirals.

I’ve said it before: You’re Good Enough. You don’t need to be anything but your true self. Whoever you are, you can be yourself around a kid who is looking for someone to be their true friend. They need someone who will walk through life and be their trusted advocate. Someone who will be there for them as they face the challenges of adolescence. We all still remember the joys of being 12 to 14 years old and desperately trying to figure out where we fit in, don’t we? Don’t you think you have some valuable wisdom to share?

You can be the friend that some kid out there really needs. You can be that special person.

Go Be That Person.

Keep Showing Up

Recently I had the following conversation with someone I was attempting to recruit to work as a mentor:

Q: What do I do if there is just no emotional connection with this kid? Like what if, I’m just not feeling it you know? I mean, this kid doesn’t really seem to want me around?

A: You just keep showing up

I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot because I’ve been feeling pretty blocked about having anything to say. I let fear and my own self defeating voices take over and I stopped showing up. I quit following my own advice.

But you can’t let those voices win. And they’re absolutely coming for you. Your old buddies fear and doubt. They don’t want you to win. But you can’t let them. You just keep showing up and doing the work.

The reality is that in all efforts sometimes just showing up really is the best you can do. And you may feel like it doesn’t matter if you do show up or not. Whether showing up means publishing a blog post that you’re not extremely proud of, or sitting in uncomfortable silence with a kid with whom you have seen no progress at all, you keep showing up.

And the lesson obviously applies to mentoring too. Because there will be times, and I have had many, where you will say, “This isn’t working at all.” or “I’m simply not making a difference here.” But the truth is that you’re too close to see the changes. Change is incremental, sometimes in such small ways that you don’t see it at all.

These real lives that we live are nothing like we see in the movies. Maybe one day it will all make sense and maybe it won’t. Maybe one day all the showing up will yield results. Or maybe it will end up in disappointment. Which is honestly okay with me. Disappointment, I can deal with that.  We can all deal with disappointment. What we can’t deal with is believing that if we just tried a little bit harder, something might have changed.

Love is A Choice

Obviously love starts out as an emotion. When you hold a little baby for the first time, you can’t help but love them so much. When you and that special someone have feelings for each other, there is just no holding back the love.

But those feelings fade over time. Ask anyone who’s raised a child through the teenage years and they’ll agree that there were days when that kid was the most unlovable person on the planet.  You sometimes have to choose to love them, possibly against their will.  And ask anyone who has stuck with a spouse for more than a couple of decades and you’ll find two people who have overlooked the small stuff and chosen love.

I mention this because it seems to me that we as a society have made a choice that love should always be a fun emotion. It’s not. Love is a commitment.

And so thinking about that and these fatherless (or motherless) kids in your community who don’t understand love at all, it’s important to understand what you’re really teaching them.

You’re showing them that you made the choice to love them and be there, even when they sometimes might not want you there. You chose love and came anyway. On those days where you really could have stood to skip lunch and work through on an important deadline, you chose love and you came to see them anyways. You chose them, and you chose love.

You are changing the world, one kid at a time, with love.

The investment of time

Consider for a minute some special event that you recall growing up, while I share one of mine:

Until I was in grade school, my mother taught piano from home. I recall one afternoon that a man we knew from church came and dropped off his daughter for a lesson and invited me to go get an ice cream cone.

Now, quick sidebar here, this was the ’80’s and that was a completely acceptable thing for him to ask and for my mother to allow.

Being a red-blooded American, there is only one thing I love more than ice cream, and that’s puppies. So, of course, I accepted. It was an ice cream cone after all. Nothing weird happened. It was just a grown up being friends with a kid. So, why after all these years, do I recall so vividly all the details surrounding that day?

It’s because of how he made me feel. For a few moments, I was the only thing going on in this guy’s life. He could have done what every other parent did when they dropped a kid off for lessons and pay no attention to me whatsoever. But he didn’t. He spent time with me.

When considering the impact of mentoring in communities, it’s important to understand how it’s being measured. Because a frequent objection I hear is that people just don’t have the time to invest in a project like that. The truth is that whatever time you have is enough. You just need to be around.

Children, especially younger ones, have very little understanding of money. But they completely understand time. So, while they won’t object to you spending all your money on them, they would rather have your time. Consider it another way:  If you were to give them the most expensive gift they asked for but mailed it to them, they might appreciate it but they would likely not remember anything about it a week later;  However, if you had nothing to give them at all but showed up and just said, “Let’s hang out.”, I can assure you that would be the part they remembered. They would not remember the expensive toy at all, but they, like me and my delicious ice cream cone, would remember the time you spent with them, probably forever.

The point is that you don’t have to quit your job and spend 100 hours a week volunteering at the neighborhood school to make an impact. My recommendation is to give up your lunch once a week and go eat it with a kid at school who doesn’t have a dad. You don’t have to buy them a gift every week, you don’t even have to buy their lunch. You just have to make your own sandwich and show up and  invest a little time with them.

So, do you have that special recollection yet? Think for a minute how that made you feel. That time when you were the center of someone’s attention and they just wanted to be with you. You have the opportunity to pass that forward to someone in your neighborhood or apartment complex or community. Somewhere close to you there is a kid who is looking for someone who will spend a little bit of time with them. Go be that person.

You’re Good Enough

Billions of dollars are spent every year convincing you of all the different things you need to be happy. You need this car, that house, this job, that address, this degree. The list goes on forever. And of course none of it is true. But we believe the narrative. We believe happiness comes from being more like the the happy people we see on tv and social media.

And in turn, we take that narrative and say things to ourselves like, “This volunteering and mentoring stuff is a good deal! Whenever I finally get ahead at work, I’ll make that happen.” or “I will take the time to get involved in my community as soon as _____ is done.” We have a lot of excuses and none of them are valid.

Because what we’re really afraid of is that maybe we’re not good enough. If it feels like I’m peering directly into your soul, it’s only because I’m speaking from first hand experience.

I spent many years avoiding doing the work I knew how to do because I felt like I was too much of a screwup in my own life to share anything of value with a kid. I thought I didn’t have any valuable lessons to share with a kid. I used to say to myself those very excuses that are invalid. I used to think I wasn’t cut out to be a mentor because, first of all, did I really know enough about life to help a kid out? I mean, look at all the mistakes I’ve made in my life. I couldn’t possibly have anything helpful to share with anyone. I believed the lie.

Some of the best advice I ever received  was, “Just be faithful to people.” So all that time I spent believing that shameful lie that I really wasn’t good enough, I just did the best I could to be faithful to the kid I had committed to. Faith and belief kept me going while I worked it out. Belief in myself that I was indeed good enough to make it work and faith in a kid that no one else really thought was going to make it.  And since life is not a sitcom, there wasn’t a special day towards the end of the episode where everything just came together neatly and I solved the mystery by 9:57 so that the news could come on at 10:00.

But, again, this isn’t about me and how I pretty much solved the world’s problems. (Because I haven’t….yet). This is about you and my encouragement to you:

You don’t need a different set of circumstances. You don’t need a different past. You do not need a special degree in social work. You do not need to be debt free and completely free of all the demons and/or bad decisions of your past. You don’t have to have your entire life figured out and wrapped up in a shiny package with a bow, and maybe a little jingly bell on it. Because you know, Martha Stewart would approve of putting a jingly bell on a gift.

You just need to be you. Show up and be there for a kid on a regular basis. Be faithful to them. Be yourself. Where you are in life is exactly where a kid in your community needs you to be right now. You Are Good Enough.