Friday, January 25, 2013

Community gardening

Last weekend, a group of our teens and adult volunteers made the most of a beautiful sunny Saturday by rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty. Under the watchful eyes of a few master gardeners and urban farmers, they put in three hours of work in the community garden at the Villages at Carver, pulling weeds and prepping the soil for planting in a month or two.

The project was timed to coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service and represented a first for the current crop of Coaching for Success participants. We’ve had periodic group events dating back to last fall, but this was the first time the teens have come together to volunteer in the community. I’m certain it won’t be the last.

When we first started trying to drum up interest in a volunteer project among our teens, I was pleased to find a high percentage who expressed a willingness to serve. I asked each whether there were any causes—hunger, homelessness, animal welfare, the environment, etc.—that were especially important to her or him. Almost to a person, the response sounded something like this: “Um…well…not really.” The experience left me with the impression that these young people have seldom if ever been asked that question before.

Since our teens didn’t request any particular type of service, we decided on the community gardening project—a tailor-made, ready-to-go opportunity supporting one of our program partners.

 The morning of the project, I overheard a few terrified exclamations as brand-new gardeners unearthed worms and other residents of the soil. And I witnessed a couple of instances of teens working through the new experience by retreating to the familiar territory of cutting up and giving each other a hard time. But I also saw teens enthusiastically applying the facilitators’ instructions and beginning to take pride in their newly acquired skills.

My informal polling of the students that day revealed a subset of the group that is interested in working in the garden on an ongoing basis. (I think the discovery of a few onions left over from the last planting helped—several of the teens couldn’t get over how fresh they smelled.) I’m not sure how this will look going forward, but our hosts offered to let us use one of the garden plots and we’re working on setting up a rotation of committed partnerships to try their hand at raising vegetables this summer.

For some of the teens, this was likely their first and last experience with community gardening. We’ll keep working with these to try and uncover the causes that spark their passion to make a difference. For a few, though, Saturday’s service ignited that spark. It’s early in the season, but I know some seeds were planted in the garden last weekend. Let’s see how they grow.

Friday, January 18, 2013


Early last fall, Marquis came to us at his mother’s insistance. He had been withdrawn from public school last year due to his penchant for fighting, and was still showing a troubling tendency to throw punches—at walls or at people—to vent.

While debriefing his intake interview, I learned that he aspires to be a professional mixed martial artist. His responses to some of the questions seemed on the surface to second his mom’s assessment that he has “anger issues.” But the interview also revealed a young man who is quiet, thoughtful, and respectful.

Later that month, we matched Marquis with Jeremy, a mentor who might also be described as quiet, thoughtful, and respectful.

Jeremy brought Marquis to one of our group events in November, a fall festival in a community where we work. I used their attendance as an opportunity to catch up on how their match was going. First I spoke with Jeremy for a little while as Marquis stood on the curb, hands in pockets, staring off into the distance.

When I moved on from Jeremy to talk with Marquis, he gave me his take—but he made me work for it. It was a few minutes into our conversation when I finally asked a question that elicited more than a one- or two-word answer: “What’s your favorite thing you’ve done with Jeremy so far?” His response came without so much as a moment’s hesitation: “We went to an MMA event together.”

For the uninitiated, MMA stands for mixed martial arts, which Wikipedia describes as “a full contact combat sport that allows the use of both striking and grappling techniques, both standing and on the ground, from a variety of other combat sports.”

At their initial training, we give mentors a list of 101 free or low-cost activities they can do with a young person. It’s not intended as a comprehensive list, but as a tool for mentors wondering how to spend time with a teen they’ve just met. Nowhere on that list is “attend a fight.” I’m so glad Jeremy didn’t stick to the script.

Fighting can get a young man suspended and eventually expelled from school. Or, constrained and focused in the right direction, it can instill in him the discipline and resiliency he’ll need to push back at the influences that will try to steal his potential.

I haven’t been there for most of the time Jeremy has spent with Marquis, but I can bet he hasn’t used that time to deliver lectures about how fighting is bad, how Marquis would be better off dropping this dream of becoming a pro fighter and just “fit the mold.”

That approach usually has the effect of shutting a teen down, causing an already-withdrawn young man to withdraw further. That’s not what I oberved in my talk with Marquis that November afternoon. It took the right conversation thread to get there, but what surfaced was a groundswell of appreciation that he has a mentor who “gets him.”

Marquis isn’t the only one satisfied with his match. When I spoke with his mom around Christmas, she gushed about the improvements she’s seen in his behavior and how happy she is that he spends time with Jeremy.

Will you see Marquis on pay-per-view in a few years, competing for an Ultimate Fighting Championship title? I can’t say. I will say, though, that this young man has much more than a puncher’s chance at making it in life.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Dream big

We spend about an hour interviewing every teen who has expressed an interest in joining Coaching for Success before accepting her or him into the program. A few days after Christmas, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing a quiet and thoughtful young lady named Yasmine.

Midway through the interview, we generally ask a series of questions pertaining to goals. When I asked Yasmine whether she has set any goals for herself, she gave me three:
1. Finish high school
2. Go to college
3. Become an elementary school teacher

As a follow-up, I asked her to choose one of those goals and talk about how she is working toward accomplishing it and why it’s important to her. She chose to talk about her first goal.

She had already given me a good deal of the “how” in answering some of the earlier interview questions. She’s not at the same high school as most of the crowd she used to get in trouble with in middle school, and she’s decided it’s more important to line herself up to succeed as a student than to get connected with a big group of new friends. She’s become the type of student who gets her work done whether her teachers are looking over her shoulder or not.

As for the “why,” her mom dropped out of high school when Yasmine was born. And her grandmother dropped out of high school when her mother was born. “I want to be the first girl in my family to finish high school,” she said.

I don’t yet know Yasmine well, but this small piece of her story inspires and challenges me.

The New Year affords us an opportunity to make resolutions and set goals about how we’d like to do things differently. In an effort to make these goals more “attainable,” how often have I settled for some trifling shift in behavior? (Exercise more, eat healthier, take up a new pastime, etc.)

In contrast, how often have I put forth a bold statement that I’m going to do something unprecedented? Making a break from how things have been done for generations in one’s family is no small feat. Yasmine’s is a remarkable goal—one that deserves support and regular reinforcement. I’m glad this soft-spoken young lady has what it takes to dream big.

Friday, January 4, 2013

No means...Yes!

One of the things that’s vitally important to the long-term success of our mentoring matches is that all parties involved—the adult volunteer, the youth, and the parent or guardian—have a willingness to commit to the relationship. This seems obvious enough, but for an organization with a longstanding partnership with the Juvenile Court, the question of consent versus constraint isn’t always so easy to sort out.

This fall, I was called into an intake interview with a young man who had been referred to us. His interviewer told me that DeVante had answered the very first question of the screening—“Do you want a mentor?—with an emphatic “No.” The interviewer had gone ahead with the rest of the intake before revisiting this most vital of all the questions we ask. Again, his answer was a firm “No.”

There’s a fine line between selling a young person on the many benefits of a mentoring relationship and backing him into a corner, pushing for a commitment hard enough that he’ll say whatever he feels he needs to say—whether he means it or not—to make the conversation end. I don’t like to toe that line.

I did give it one more shot, though, making sure he understood that a mentor is not a de facto probation officer, a parent, or someone else to get on his case and tell him what to do, but rather a role model, a listening ear, a friend.

He was resolute in his insistence that he didn’t want a mentor. I told him he was welcome to come to the weekly tutoring sessions anyway, and that I’d occasionally revisit this question with him. He agreed to this arrangement.

I was surprised to learn a few Tuesdays later that our Program Director had lined DeVante up for a match meeting with Kevin, one of our veteran mentors. Concerned that perhaps something had been lost in translation, I took DeVante aside and reminded him of our conversation a few weeks before. I assured him I had meant it when I promised we wouldn’t try to force him into a match.

I asked the question again: “Do you want a mentor?” Not all that much time had passed, but something had clearly changed for this young man. His determined “No” had turned into “It’s okay. I’ll give it a try.” And try he has.

Now a couple of months into his match, DeVante’s is one of the most familiar faces at the weekly tutoring sessions. Are he and his mentor consistently getting time together? In the case of some matches, I have to take the mentor’s and the teen’s word for it that they’re meeting regularly. In DeVante and Kevin’s case, though, all I have to do is show up on Tuesdays. They’re both almost invariably there, talking and laughing, sitting side by side working through an out-of-class reading assignment, happy to be together.

Willingness can take a person a long way.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A new thing

Happy New Year, and welcome to the brand-new blog home of YES!Atlanta. We've been around since 1988, but are new to the blogosphere. We already have a you can find out lots of information about the work we're doing in the Atlanta metro area. Please also follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

The goals of this space are a bit different from our other online homes. Here, you'll find regular reports from the front lines. As we move through 2013, I'll be collecting and posting first-hand accounts from our mentors and tutors, the dedicated volunteers who are the backbone of what we do.

Theirs are the compelling stories of hard-earned connections with teens who have been quiet, reserved, shut down; of breakthroughs and "ah-ha!" moments when they've seen young people surge ahead of the curve at school because of the hard work they've put in studying together; of the surprising twists and turns a mentoring relationship can take, and the satisfaction of seeing a young person take a firm hold on one of life's lessons.

Here are a few basic ground rules and protocols we'll observe:

  • We want to share compelling stories, but not at the expense of a young person's or a volunteer's desire for privacy or anonymity. We'll generally use first names only, and might at times use aliases. The names may be invented, but the stories never will be.
  • We'll keep posts to 500 or fewer words. War and Peace is a great book, but you probably didn't come here to read it.
  • Watch for a new post each week, usually on Friday.

That's it. New year, new blog. I hope you'll stop back by later this week when the narrative begins in earnest....