A Year of Virtual Mentoring
This month marks a year since the pandemic began, in which we’re still going through. It’s been a year of figuring out zoom meetings, working from home, loss and of course in our case a year of virtual mentoring. Let’s rewind a bit – at this time last year I was at the end of my maternity leave and feeling a mix of emotions. I was anxious on how my work life would look and how as a program we would be able to sustain effective mentoring especially since the “outside world” shut down so quickly. Peer groups quickly canceled along with mentor trainings and we were all forced to figure out our new normal.
While in-person mentoring came to a halt, the many amazing friendships built in our program did not. Mentoring is essential and is an important aspect of so many of our youth’s lives that not going full speed into virtual mentoring wasn’t an option but a necessity. The BEST Kids community all relied on each other to make virtual mentoring work and worthwhile. BEST Kids staff got to work and quickly came up with a list of virtual activities that included activities such as virtual tours of Museums and video/iPhone games for our matches to indulge in. While staff began to create a foundation of what virtual mentoring should look like, our matches immersed in it.
I have to be honest, it was tough in the beginning for a lot of our matches. We had youth who didn’t have consistent Wi-Fi or have laptops to make it easy for them to connect with their mentors but we somehow navigated through all of these challenges. Laptops were donated and resources around our community became available for Wi-Fi services along with other resources for our youth. Our matches knocked down these barriers and awesome moments came out of it. We had matches compete in push up challenges over facetime, matches connecting over the phone almost every day, weekly zoom meetings that were full of fun games, we had matches who discussed Presidential debates over text and we even had new matches start virtually.
Virtual mentoring was different but it’s allowed not only our matches but the BEST Kids program as a whole a moment to explore a different way of connecting. While we can’t wait to see each other’s faces without masks and In-person, I think we can all say we’ve learned a few things during virtual mentoring - and not just how to take ourselves off mute - but lessons we can cherish and grow from. One thing I’ve always known but was made clear this past year is that the BEST Kids community is and continues to be resilient, beyond committed, and creative (virtually and in-person)!
Celebrating Black Success
Many of us who have gone through the traditional educational system in the United States have been conditioned to think about celebrating black success within the confines of 28 days, aka February: Black History Month. And if we’re honest with ourselves, the black success we celebrated usually looked the same year after year after year. I’ll speak for myself here: growing up, Black History Month was always a month full of learning about slavery, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King Jr. I can’t say I remember too much else. It wasn’t until college that I was even presented with information about black history that was different.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing the schools I attended or Black History Month. Instead, I hope to get you thinking introspectively about your own lived experience and the systems with which you interact each and every day. How is black success celebrated, if at all? When is it celebrated? Who is being celebrated? With whom are you celebrating?
As a member of the BEST Kids family, I’m not worried about you knowing that black lives matter, but are you living that out? Are you modeling that to your mentee? Maryland MENTOR’s Sadiq Ali published a piece at the beginning of the month with a list of 28 ways to celebrate black history with your mentee. Mentors, I encourage you to check it out and implement these practices into your everyday interactions with your mentee. They are all really fun ideas, in my opinion!
To all BEST Kids supporters, I leave you with this plea: make good trouble (as Former Congressman John Lewis is coined for saying). You have a responsibility to the kids in our program (and all kids) to make individual changes that, collectively, change this world, this country, for the better. Talk about the success of black people, not just when it’s not Black History Month or the trendy thing to do. And ESPECIALLY when no one else is. Change starts now and it starts with you.
January is National Mentoring Month - a very important time at BEST Kids! We take this time to recognize all our dedicated volunteer mentors for the countless hours they spend simply being there for their mentees. Though 'simply being there' doesn't sound like a tall order at first, it is safe to say that a mentor's responsibilities are anything but simple. A BEST Kids mentor is charged with walking alongside their mentee through the mountains and the valleys of life. As with the rest of our world, there were many valleys over this past year for our mentees AND our mentors. In spite of all that was thrown at our country this year, our mentors continued to show up for their mentee. Whether it was the mentor who learned how to engage their mentee virtually or the mentor who attended our Solidarity Sessions to learn more about what it means to be anti-racist, our mentors showed nothing short of dedication, care, and love to their mentees. During this National Mentoring Month, we hope our mentors feel extra love and appreciation from their BEST Kids family!
In a world that has been feeling more divided than ever, and that has forced us to distance in order to preserve our physical safety, finding ways to remain connected has become even more critically important to maintaining our overall health. This connectedness comes in the form of being able to stay connected to the internet and other basic needs during times of extreme economic hardship for so many. We are proud to say that through emergency funding from local foundations, we were able to provide $20,000 of basic needs support to help our mentees and their families to weather these tough times through assistance with tablets, groceries, rent, utilities, and educational support.
This connectedness also comes in the form of feeling the power of relationship with a mentor and with peers who can relate to some of the hardships that have only been intensified this past year. We’ve maintained these critical relationships virtually and safely in person this past year that has opened up a whole new world of mentor and mentee engagement with one another including countless tik tok videos, lots of outdoor time, and a variety of online games. We’ve also continued to offer our Peer Group activities monthly including yoga workshops, virtual cooking classes, art projects and so much more. Our mentors have been able to deliver summer and winter care packages to their mentees filled with activities, books, snacks and more to help brighten the day for each youth in our program. None of this would have been possible without the strong support of the community we are connected to.
Despite all of these positive outcomes, this year has undoubtedly been very stressful for us all. We’ve had to push through significant funding losses, staffing reductions, the trauma of continued racial injustices, and what feels like constant pivoting in order to keep things going strong. One of the things that has kept us going through it all is hope.
There’s a quote about hope from one of my favorite movies, Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” It has been hope that has helped us to continue to innovate and better respond to the changing needs of the youth and families we serve. It has been hope that has had us rethink the way we do thinks and plan ahead strategically for a brighter and more impactful future. And it has been hope that has helped us connect more deeply with those in our BEST Kids family and in our community.
As we close out this memorable year, I urge you all to keep hope forefront and a motivation to continue to care for ourselves and also for others in all we do. We thank you for being part of our family of support and we appreciate how you’ve continued to generate hope for us all over the years, but especially this past year. I wish you all a wonderful and safe holiday season and let’s all hope that next year will bring us even more to celebrate together.
As we approach the end of the year, the BEST Kids team wanted to continue to highlight the people that make our program possible: our mentors and mentees! Despite the pandemic, we were able to catch up with a few of our mentoring matches. In this post we will be highlighting one of our older youth, Cynthia, and her mentee, Andrea. Take a look at our team’s conversation with Cynthia and Andrea below. Thank you so much to Cynthia and Andrea!
BK: Meet Cynthia and Andrea!
C: My name is Cynthia Jackson. I’m 22 years old and I’ve been in foster care since I was 15, shortly after the birth of my daughter. I joined BEST Kids in 2017 during my senior year of high school.
A: My name is Andrea Cilliers. I’m 31 years old and moved to the DC area from Chicago a few years ago. I’d participated in volunteer work prior to moving to DC and knew that I wanted to continue to volunteer when I moved to the area. When I found BEST Kids in 2018 it just felt right. I truly felt it was God leading me here. I was matched with Cynthia shortly after and the rest is history.
BK: Tell us a little about your relationship.
C: I met Miss Andrea in March of 2018. I’d had a mentor with BEST Kids before and was a little unsure about being re-matched. But, meeting Miss Andrea was fun. I’d never had anyone in my life who wanted to just be there for me. Anytime I’m feeling down, need advice, or simply want to talk to someone, I know I can call my mentor and we can talk about anything. Both my mentor and the staff at BEST Kids have helped me prepare for the outside world - from advocating for myself through emancipation to changing placements several times and beyond. While Miss Andrea came into my life as my mentor, over the past two years, she has become a true friend.
A: Like Cynthia said, we’ve been matched since early 2018, so just over two years at this point. My relationship with Cynthia is probably a little bit different than the average BEST Kids’ mentor/mentee relationship. When you think of foster care you think of younger children or teens but Cynthia was 20 years old when we were matched and she’s 22 now. We aren’t that far off in age and she’s always had access to her own phone so we’ve used FaceTime, texts, and calls to connect a lot more than a younger mentee probably would. While being matched with a mentee as old as Cynthia is not exactly, what I expected when I first heard of the program, it’s been amazing. Cynthia has become a staple in my life and someone I can truly call a friend. Our relationship is perfect for us.
BK: What was your favorite activity with your mentor/mentee?
C: Miss Andrea and I went kayaking with Team River Runner at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center last year. I’d never been kayaking before and was hesitant to go because I can’t swim. But, Miss Andrea encouraged me and was with me the whole time. Once we got out on the water I ended up having a lot of fun. That was a great experience and I would love to do it again.
A: That’s probably my favorite activity as well! Team River Runner is a great organization and it was good to get out on the water. I find water activities so calming.
BK: How have you grown from being paired with your mentor/mentee?
C: Having a mentor has completely changed my outlook on life because I have someone who feels like a best friend. I wish I had known about mentoring earlier in my life. The support of my mentor and the team at BEST Kids has meant the world to me, and I hope to one-day pass that support along by becoming a foster parent to a child who has had a difficult experience like me.
A: Cynthia had a lot of changes in her life right after we were matched. Our journey to get to know one another took a lot of flexibility. But, getting to know her and watching her advocate for herself and others even when she’s dealing with tough situations has caused me to reflect a lot on myself. I’m in constant awe of her. It’s also great to get out and just have some fun!
BK: How has being a part of BEST Kids impacted you?
C: My journey has not been easy. After entering foster care, I was separated from my siblings, placed in over 10 foster homes, lost my mother at a young age, went through emancipation, and more. Before joining BEST Kids, it was hard for me to open up and talk about some of the experiences I’ve been through. But since being a part of the program and being matched with Miss Andrea, I’ve come a long way. Over the years in the BEST Kids program I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer, try new experiences, feel empowered, advocate for myself and other youth in foster care, make a lifelong friend, and be a part of a loving community.
A: The beautiful thing about meeting Cynthia at this stage in her life is that it has allowed me be truly reflective on my younger years. I’ve been able to relate to Cynthia by thinking of myself at that age and honestly, I don’t think that I would have handled many things as well as Cynthia does. She’s simply amazing. She’s become a good friend and really important person in my life. I cherish our relationship because while I can be there for her, she is also there for me. There are many things that Cynthia has experienced, like motherhood, that I have not yet encountered. Cynthia is full of wisdom and courage and being her mentor pushes me to better just as much as it pushes her. Our relationship is truly a two-way street.
BK: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you and your relationship with your mentor/mentee?
C: I have asthma so during the pandemic a lot of things are on hold for me. But, my mentor has been there for me the whole time. We talk often and I know she’s always there to help me when I need her.
I received COVID assistance through BEST Kids. I’m very grateful for the team’s help. I mostly used that money to pay my phone bill. I’m in the process of looking for a new job and keeping my phone on so that I can get calls for interviews and things has been really important.
A: Thankfully, my relationship with Cynthia has not been impacted drastically. I usually travel a lot for work and being grounded at the moment means that I’ve actually had more time to talk and connect with Cynthia. While we have not been able to do much exploring this year, I’m happy to say that we have remained connected and even got to see each other in person a few times to catch up. We’ve been following social distance guidelines, of course, but have been able to take a few walks, go bowling, and even get a massage.
Though our relationship has not been impacted negatively through COVID, we know that is not the case for many mentoring relationships through BEST Kids. My relationship with Cynthia is a little different because she is a little older and has always has access to a phone. I know that I can always get in touch with her and even before the pandemic we were connected via FaceTime, text, and calls a lot more than matches with younger mentees. I can’t imagine what this would have been like if she did not have access to a phone and I was unable to get in touch with her. Amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, one thing is clear, staying connected to others is critically important.
BK: What is one thing you would like to share with anyone considering becoming a BEST Kids mentor or supporter?
C: Without programs like BEST Kids, children and young adults in the foster care system may not have a loving and supportive community. I wish I had known about mentoring earlier in my life because I think it would have really helped with learning healthy coping habits. In the past, I had trouble with my emotions and often let me attitude get the best of me. I can look back now and learn from my behavior and with the help of my mentor, the BEST Kids program, and the Foster Care system I understand more about the power of a positive attitude and how to look at life differently.
The BEST Kids program isn’t just a fun program that provides unique opportunities, it is also important for kids in the foster care system to build trust with an adult figure who is there because they really care. Now that I am aging out of the system I hope to someday be a foster parent to take care of a child who also had a difficult experience like me.
A: BEST Kids is a community of support and love that fosters diversity and inclusion more than any other organization that I’ve been a part of. Becoming a mentor with BEST Kids and befriending Cynthia has been one of the best decisions I’ve made since moving to the DC area. Without a network of support, it would be challenging for anyone to overcome most of life’s obstacles. Being a part of this program connects us as neighbors in this community and speaks life into the idea that no one should have to feel alone because we can truly all benefit from the gifts of others. The reach and impact these programs can have on the youth as well as the volunteers is both tangible and intangible. We can see the transformation of a person’s outlook and circumstance that permeates throughout the rest of their life. I am fortunate to have found this program and to have been matched with Cynthia.
You can help support the mission of BEST Kids and help keep mentor/mentee matches - like Cynthia and Andrea - together through COVID and beyond by giving to BEST Kids today! Give now!
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