Start Small

When I was in grade school, I had a babysitter that went to junior high who brought over her history textbook, presumably to do homework after I went to bed. But you and I both know the truth: She brought the book because her parents made her and then watched tv while eating all the good snacks after I was asleep.

I remember looking at that big book and thinking to myself, “I’ll never be smart enough to read books like that.”  Of course you don’t get from a grade school education to reading history textbooks overnight, you take it one step at a time. And a few years later, I turned into that same snack stealing babysitter who was assigned a big 900 page textbook that I never read. And just look at me now; an adult who mostly wants to read Calvin & Hobbes or Pearls before Swine above anything else. But that’s neither really here nor there, is it?

When I helped organize a group of people that would eventually adopt a school in 2013, all the school staff wanted was consistent classroom readers. They lamented the passing of  yet another year without readers for each of their classrooms. Fast forward a couple of years and we now do much more than simply read in classrooms. But we couldn’t be there without that small start.

I’m awfully good at running around in circles without ever making a coherent point, so here it is: Take it easy. If mentoring a student on an individual basis is intimidating to you, then don’t worry about it. Just pick your favorite book from growing up and find a group of kids to read to. Later this summer, when school starts back up, find a school near your home or work and ask if you can read to a classroom. You may find the spark to get more involved like I did and end up, as one trusted friend pointed out, “turn this into a small empire.”

But even if you only ever show up the one time and read to a classroom of kids, you have still done something great by making that first small step. You have left an indelible mark on a child’s life and affected lives positively in your community. That’s not a bad deal at all.

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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.

You’re Invited

This message is for you and intended for you. You who are reading this right now. You are invited to this party. And it is a FUN PARTY!

Being left out is the absolute worst feeling in the world. All the rejections of life come flooding back each and every time: The job you didn’t get; the girl or guy who chose someone else, and goodness gracious they just seemed so happy without you; the trip that “everyone” went on and you had to work, or just straight up did not get invited. It hurts. It probably always will.

The last thing I want in the world is to see someone with hurt feelings. It’s honestly a little bit of a flaw for me. I can’t stand to tell people no. I hate letting people down. I have gotten into a jam more than once just because I couldn’t say no. One time, hilariously, in a Mexican resort where I nearly did buy that over-priced timeshare.

I want everyone who reads these words to understand that I am speaking directly to them and they are invited to be a part of this movement. You’re one of the cool kids now and you are invited to hang out. Actually, there is no longer any such thing as a ‘cool kid’, because now NO ONE gets rejected! No one is on the outside. We are all in here together. We are hanging out and having fun. We are reading books and eating snow cones. We are making up the rules as we go. If you’re not winning at Battleship, you can cheat a little bit and I won’t say anything. If you don’t know how to play Uno, just wing it.You can finally show Michelle from 7th grade that she totally blew it when she wouldn’t give you her phone number. We can look at other people’s fun summer vacation pictures from that pristine and beautiful Micronesian beach and not be jealous at all.

What do you say? You and me, we’ll get out there and make some new friends and change our communities. Everyone will want to be a part of what we’re doing. It will be a lot of fun. Join me.

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 _____________”

BLT

Today  will stick with me for a long time. For over a year now, I’ve brought lunch to an elementary school and hung out with the same kid. I won’t use his real name so let’s just go with Cletus since I have always wanted to have a friend named Cletus.

Cletus is smart. He is funny and I really like hanging out with him. Two days ago, I attempted to connect with him and he wasn’t at school. I was disappointed but I was also at the point of giving up. I even told his assistant principal, the program coordinator, those words almost exactly

“I’m just not reaching him.”

I really didn’t think I was doing any good. I was counting down the days until the end of this school year so  I could tell myself I didn’t quit on him.

Today was different because Cletus finally opened up to me and showed he trusted me. He wanted to confide things in me which were bothering him. He welled up in tears at some things in his life, and I did too.

Until today, I took for granted the work I was doing which established an important foundation with Cletus.

And I’m the moron here because it was something I have known all along. I finally gave Cletus a BLT. He believed, liked and trusted me.

In some sales training classes, they teach you about the BLT. You can’t establish rapport with a client without it. You can’t close a sale without rapport and you’re just wasting your time. A key part of the sales process is that the prospect has to believe, like and trust you. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels.

I can’t believe I looked right past how important believing, liking and trusting your mentor is in the mentoring process. Of course, I understood this academically. However, today it was a lesson I won’t forget (I hope).

I share this because I hope it encourages someone. I wish that I could say mentoring is fun and awesome all the time. The truth is sometimes it is not. It is frustrating and exhausting and you just want to quit. But you can’t. You have to get back up and be consistent and show up.

If all of this sounds a lot like love, that is by design. It’s because I believe all of this falls under the umbrella of love. And my good friend Robert Earl Keen once said it best,

“Flesh and blood it turns to dust and scatters in the wind,

Love is all that matters in the end.”

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.