In the United States, “local” is in. Think about it – we’re dining at restaurants serving ingredients from local farms and purveyors, we’re creating coworking communities for budding entrepreneurs to launch businesses in our cities, and, in the global sense of “local,” we are supporting a resurgence in manufacturing of goods that are produced in the United States.
But I’d argue that this emphasis on supporting what’s “local” is not a new human instinct; instead, it’s a trait that is engrained in humans and frequently emphasized by our social interactions. For example, when you meet somebody new, whether it’s at an industry conference, your first day of college, or on a date, the question of where one is from almost always comes up within the first few minutes of conversation. With that information, we begin to develop an idea for what our partner in conversation is really like, or perhaps more correctly, really likes. From Atlanta, you say? You must root for the Braves, love Waffle House and prefer Coke over Pepsi! If someone were to stereotype me with this criteria, they’d be dead on accurate, and I’d be proud to admit it.
On a United States-macro level, we are identified by our hometowns – i.e., Atlanta, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and within our hometowns, the micro level, we’re identified by our local communities – i.e., neighborhood, religious affiliation, youth sports league. Regardless of whether we’re discussing the macro-locality or the micro-locality, we generally take great pride in being a part of these groups, improving these groups and supporting these groups. And, my pride in my hometown and my local communities is why I mentor with PAL.
But, why do I focus on mentoring children over any other method of volunteering? I mentor because supporting the children in our local communities is, in my personal opinion, the most important objective that a community can undertake in order to strengthen itself for the future. Take me for example. When my family immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1989, the Jewish community was instrumental in getting us settled. There were of course hundreds of factors in my upbringing, but this initial support helped my family get a strong start on life in a foreign place, and in turn, helped provide an easier transition for a little boy that spoke no English.
Now, I’m back in Atlanta working as an attorney – a positive outcome of a Jewish community that supported me with youth groups, strong synagogues and summer camps, and I’m mentoring because PAL gives me an opportunity to support children in Atlanta’s Jewish community in a different but equally valuable method. Good parenting is widely known, and strongly shown by studies, to be the most important factor in a child’s healthy, successful upbringing, but we know that there cannot be a shortage of positive adult influences from teachers to coaches to camp counselors. Each one provides something different and something new for a child.
Mentorship programs differ. Some are based on education. Some are based on professional careers. PAL is based on developing a positive, social relationship between a young child and an adult. Our role as PAL mentors is to provide another adult with whom a child can create a trusted bond. Our relationships are social and meant to be fun. My Little PAL and I connect most strongly over sports. We have been to a Braves game, a Hawks game and a Falcons practice. We hang out and watch football. We’ve bowled and played catch. In finding a strong area of common interest, my Little PAL and I have developed a trusted friendship, which in mentoring is the jumping off point for helping a child feel comfortable sharing his thoughts with an adult and helping a mentor develop skills in that child.
One of the skills that I focus on in my mentoring is my Little PAL’s willingness to open up socially. My Little PAL is naturally a quiet guy – making him almost a polar opposite of my own natural inclination to chatter. However, from our interactions and time spent together over the last year, I know that he’s thinking when he’s quiet and that he’s got a lot to say. As we’ve developed our trust, he’s opened up to me and we’ve talked about school, summer camps and his sports teams. My hope is that my presence and my friendship are making him more comfortable with the introduction of new people in his life, a skill that we as adults know is paramount to professional and social success out in the world, whether it’s at school, at work, or at the movie theater on a regular night out.
While I hope that I am providing some sort of development in my Little PAL, I know that he is providing me with a real chance to learn and grow as a person. This reciprocal learning opportunity is one of the most exciting parts about mentoring. Mentoring is truly a two-way street in which both parties get something valuable out of the experience. The greatest lesson that I have learned from my Little PAL is that connecting with new people takes a different amount of time for each unique relationship. Sometimes, two personalities match and hit it off immediately. On the other hand, as I’ve described in my experience, my Little PAL and I socialize at different speeds, and I’ve learned a lot about being patient and building trust in a relationship in order to create an environment in which a more reserved person is ready to socialize with me. In all honesty, this was a frustrating lesson, but one that is extremely valuable in all contexts of my day-to-day interactions. It has made me think about opportunities to meet new, interesting people that I may have missed because I didn’t display the necessary patience. I know that I didn’t begin mentoring with the intention of learning, but that is my naïveté shining through because any experience in life can be a learning experience – a mantra we’ve often heard and which holds especially true for mentoring.
So, what are you waiting for? Maybe you don’t know if you’d be a good mentor, which is a very fair worry. Mentoring is a one-on-one experience that takes energy, creativity, and care, so it’s not something to be taken lightly. The mentee, in whatever context, is relying on the mentor. But, I believe that most of us have it in us to be good mentors for some specific group. My mentoring is focused on children because I believe that I can make a difference in that important subset of our community. Maybe you feel more comfortable in the business setting in which case you should look to a young entrepreneur, or maybe you have a talent in art and can pass along your skills and knowledge to a new writer, photographer, or painter. Whatever setting it is, I expect that you are proud of some community – big or small – of which you are a part. It is our inherent nature to support our local communities, and I encourage you to support yours by mentoring. You’ll learn that you have it in you to be a good mentor. You’ll learn that you have good advice to share. And, just as valuable, you’ll learn that there’s always something that you can learn.