strengths-based after school mentoring

Before reading Venturing Together: Empowering Students to Succeed, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.  I had familiarized myself with Merge and its mission, but I was eager to learn more about the method.  The introductory chapters, however, described the state of our society and the dire level of need for community in our communities.

 I was, of course, expecting this background, but I did not anticipate the knee-jerk defensive reaction that I had to the information.  As I read the descriptions of at-risk youth and their environments, I thought over and over, “That was me.  I did that.  I felt that way, and I turned out alright.”  I didn’t want to fall into the category of “at-risk.”

If I’m being truly honest with myself, part of the dissonance in my mind was bubbling up from my position in society.  I was an upper-middle class, Caucasian girl with two parents and everything I needed to be a healthy, normal kid.  “At-risk” is a term that I immediately associated with the students I taught in a severely impoverished and crime heavy neighborhood.

As an anthropologist, it’s an incredible shame that I wasn’t considering the relative nature of need or the universal nature of the detrimental aspects of our culture.  I did, in fact, share many of the obstacles that challenged students face.  Depression is a weight that I have carried with me for almost as long as I can remember.  This weight became a great deal heavier with the sudden death of my father in an aircraft accident.  Very far down the road, I would be diagnosed with PTSD as a result of this event.

As I matured to adolescence, I met a world where self-absorption was essential to success, and material and physical perfection were essential to self-absorption.  Sensitivity was not an option, and the closest thing to community was when someone actually gave a person a second thought.  The stage was set for me and a great number of my upper-middle class peers to fall through the cracks. 

I now know that while many of my classmates are studying at Columbia and Brown, some of them are on the very same corners as the inner-city kids that I thought were so different.  Some of them didn’t even make it that far.  They overdosed, died in car accidents, committed suicide, or went to jail.  In the end, the disease in modern society doesn’t hit a wall when it gets to the suburbs, and painful experiences like death and disappointment are shared by virtually everyone.

Fortunately for me, I found a way to navigate through the problems I was experiencing.  Writing was my outlet, and it had been my passion since I was old enough to pick up a pencil.  My parents were very supportive of all of my endeavors.  They encouraged me to pursue any and every activity that I chose.  Although I struggled greatly with self-esteem in my youth, I think it is to their credit that I became the confident person that I am today. 

At this point, there has been enough distance (more emotional than temporal) for my mother and me to bring up the “tomes” that were very literally everywhere.  I wrote constantly, and, to be frank, it was what kept me from taking drastic action.  I am aware of the fact that most people who suffer from PTSD and similar disorders find it hard to communicate verbally.  In this fact, I see the vital importance of artistic expression.  If I did not have access to a creative outlet, I don’t know that I would be here today.

Another source of my enthusiasm for Merge’s approach is the very structured and sincere mentorship.  I had a difficult time of things with a caring family.  A very distressing number of children and adolescents are completely bereft of support systems. 

In my work at Audubon Middle School in Los Angeles, absentee and abusive parents were the rule, not the exception.  My students had very high walls, and in a full school year I only came close to a trust-based relationship with one of them. 

This tells me that with each year they aren’t given the time or attention to build trusting relationships with teachers and other adults outside the home.  Just as they are abandoned or hurt by those close to them, they are passed along by the system with very little care.  It is extremely difficult for me to see the way their education suffers; it is devastating to see the way their self-awareness and potential suffocate. 

I strongly believe that the very deliberate style of strengths-based mentoring presented in Venturing Together can pick up the slack that society leaves between itself and its children.  Most importantly, it fosters the kind of attitude that is necessary to change the status quo.  With after school programs increasingly using the Merge approach, I hope that if I have children they will grow up in a culture that genuinely appreciates them as individuals.

Christina Lengyel, Writing Coach, Harrisburg, PA