Sonoma County Strong!

It is with sadness and relief, exhilaration and exhaustion that we transition from Cavanagh Evacuation Center back to Mentor Me. What an amazing call to service this was for all of us. We sheltered up to 158 displaced Sonoma County residents for 6 days with round the clock love! It was an honor and a privilege to be able to step into this role and we intend to stay in touch with these beautiful families and continue to support them.

With much love and gratitude to all who played a part,
Deb

 

Creating Tomorrow’s Superheros

I gave a version of this talk at the Mentor Me volunteer recognition and recruitment event at the Mentor Me Cavanagh Recreation Center on September 18, 2017. I decided to share it here as well for those who missed it, or even for those who heard it and might want to read it for themselves. 

If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you may have come across some of these stories in other forms, but they take on another meaning in this context.

Thanks for reading. – Deb


The West Side Relays is a track and field event for Petaluma West Side 5th-6th graders. It’s big deal for students and often wrought with equal parts excitement and dread. I had helped coach a little when my daughter was at Valley Vista, so when my son was in the 6th grade there a few years ago, I was asked to be the 6th grade head coach.

Two years prior Valley Vista had won third place, the previous year they had won 2nd, and so…., how great would it BE if I could take Valley Vista to the top!

No Pressure, right?

What this meant was that for about 5 months, at least twice a week, I worked with 47 sixth graders. What I wanted to do was to turn them into a team. At the end of the effort, I wanted each one of those kids to learn a little bit about the mental and physical challenges of training for something big, about fueling our bodies, sleep, stress, form, pacing, etc. I wanted them to try all the different events, to step outside of their comfort zones, whatever that meant, and I wanted each one of them to FEEL like an athlete.

I wanted each kid to OWN their event, for it to be THEIR race and to feel the full support of a coach, a mentor, and TEAM behind them.

About 4 weeks into coaching and teaching and training and mentoring and bonding I sat down on a weekend to read quite a large document for coaches about the RULES of the West Side Relays. Aside from the many important RULES to know about race day, it also laid out how the point system works for that day, in other words… how one actually WINS the West Side Relays.

I know what you’re all thinking. DEB! You’re supposed to read this stuff BEFORE you start.

Yeah… and?

The following Wednesday, when I met with my team, we had some pretty big things to talk about.

First of all, I had some explaining to do.

Secondly, we had to discuss our TWO BIG ISSUES and make some important decisions TOGETHER.

Issue #1: IF EVERYONE runs or jumps in the events that they love and that makes them feel successful and powerful and athletic, we most likely will not, cannot, win. In fact, we might actually come in dead last.

Issue #2:  IF our friend and teammate Aiden, who was born with a condition that looks and acts a lot like Cerebral Palsy was to run the race HE wanted to run (the 100 meter dash, the REAL 100 meter dash, and not the 50 meter “SPECIAL” dash that was provided for Special Needs kids) we would have to break exactly 3 RULES during that race that could very well get us disqualified from the entire event.

The questions we had to answer that day were much more complicated than what is right and what is wrong, because life is not black and white and the hard decisions we have to make each day in life are mostly clouded in GRAY. It’s murky. It’s often hard to know.

The questions I charged us to answer were these:
WHO are we as a team?
WHO are we as individuals?
CAN we make a group decision that we ALL stand behind until the very end, no matter what happens on race day and can we set aside our differences and social groups and the stuff we are mad at and the stuff we are afraid of, and HOLD ON as a team no matter what?


So… right now, we’re sitting in the Game Room of the amazing Mentor Me Cavanagh Recreation Center. Some of you are here to learn about mentoring and hear about a new mentoring model, some of you are here to be among fellow mentors and get your Continuing Mentor Education credits, so WHY am I opening with a story about 47 6th graders and the West Side Relays?

One of our biggest challenges is recruiting enough mentors to match with the more than 80 children on our waiting list. I’ve come to realize that many adults out there believe that today’s youth are lost to us because of television and video games and cell phones. They also believe that we have lost our kids to drugs and alcohol and gangs. Even more pervasive, though, is the belief that kids today do not generally respond to or respect adults, that adults no longer have the power to significantly influence our young people outside of tradition and structured settings, like schools, teams, and counseling offices. In some cases, I hear adults feeling afraid of our youth, especially pre-teens and teens. This leaves approximately 60% of the kids on our waitlist boys between the ages of 12-17.

If you leave here tonight with nothing else, I want to show that adults coming consistently, showing a sincere and genuine interest in a child’s life and sharing their own wisdom and experience as volunteers STILL and ALWAYS have the ability to positively change the course of a child’s life.


Back to the West Side Relays… We as a team decided to stay our course as if we’d never learned about the point system and the race for the special needs kids. We went over in detail the rules we would have to break if we were going to truly support Aiden. We asked ourselves if breaking those rules would hurt anyone else and we made a plan for if we got disqualified and how we would address the public if that happened.

I had never been so proud of a group of kids in my life. To me, they were beyond courageous, wise beyond our expectations, and so full of heart and spirit that to me, as their coach, they were not only athletes, they were Superheroes.

Because of that, through fundraising and the support of the Valley Vista community, EVERY member or our team had real running shoes to train in and for race day, EVERY athlete wore black athletic shorts and shirts with the red Viking Logo on the front. In addition, the team wore capes. As we entered the field, one of 5 teams, we stayed in a tight pack and we silently ran military style one warm-up lap all the way around the track with Aiden and me as pacers.

The day began.

About two hours in, it was time for Aiden’s 100 yard dash. The start line was directly across from the judges’ booth. As Aiden and I made our way to the start, he was not properly registered for this race because he was flagged for the 50 yard dash (Broken Rule #1). For his safety, and for the peace of mind of his amazing parents, I had to run alongside him. (Broken rule #2 No coaches on the track). As word spread that the 100 meter dash was about to start, you could see red caped athletes make their way to the inside of the track and gather in a tight pack in front of the start line. I think Aiden and I both had the same look of terror on our faces and the same level of almost debilitating adrenaline and cortisol running through our bodies as the gun went off. About a third of the way into the race I pointed and shouted to have Aiden look over-he saw his team running alongside him on the grass cheering and shouting his name (Broken Rule #3 – No teammates running alongside). Aiden’s pace quickened so much I crossed the finish line behind him and rightly so, I watched him run into the pack of his friends and his family.

Aiden’s pace quickened so much I crossed the finish line behind him and rightly so; I watched him run into the pack of his friends and his family.

The moments that followed were a bit of blur. So many of us were crying and laughing and falling on the ground in emotional exhaustion. But I’ll never forget the kind of eerie quiet that came over the field as our kids gathered tight around, looking to me with anticipation and for guidance. I gave the motion for them all to sit (most of them were taller than me) and I told them this:

“I could not BE more proud of you all. You are my superheroes. But this day is not over. Until we are told otherwise. We compete like the athletes we are and that we trained to be. I want each one of you to take ALL that we learned over the last 5 months, and ALL that you have, bring ALL that you ARE and all that you’ve been through in your lives, and you RUN. You JUMP. You THROW. As if your lives depended on it. Now go. I’ll see you at the finish line.”


Why do we need mentors and advocates NOW more than ever?

I can’t help but feel excited and empowered by the marches and candlelight vigils and protests going on to combat the legislation that threatens the security of our already vulnerable populations. In this building alone, I see people gathering and rising up in support of those children and families most in need. But what I also notice and hear from staff in the field is OUR most vulnerable children and families are not at the marches and vigils and protests. In many cases they don’t even know that their neighbors in the bigger and fancier houses and their elected officials are doing anything for them at all.

Mentor Me is speaking out to say that now is the time for all of us, especially those leaders and influencers to get closer, to actually take the hands of people experiencing discrimination and the many effects of living at and below the poverty line and WALK with them into the light. Stand by them and show them that the community cares, that they are NOT invisible and that their neighbors are listening.
But there are many of you in this room already doing this very thing: So in addition to being a call to action and a rally cry to service this is a special night to thank those of you working and volunteering with young people and their families. Thank you, teachers and all school staff, thank you coaches and counselors.

If you are a past or current Mentor Me Mentor, Please stand up:

Mentors, teachers, coaches, counselors….You have been doing this. You are DOING this…supporting kids in feeling safe to CONNECT with others and the world around them.

Empowering kids to GROW to their highest potential.

Showing them how and where to CONTRIBUTE their talents and time to build a more positive world.

What is the model? What is the secret sauce?

You see here the three phases of a mentorship. They are in a row, there is a progression.

We do expect that Connection happens first and once that’s felt by both mentor and mentee that we can move into the Growth phase.

We do expect that as a result of a meaningful friendship of at least two years, that has moved in and out and back and forth between the first two phases over time that the young person WILL move into the Contribution phase. Life does not wait for us to complete one phase and indicate to it that we would like to move onto the next. Life does not position us to always go forth and go forward in the name of progress. For many reasons, including early childhood trauma, family

Life does not wait for us to complete one phase and indicate to it that we would like to move onto the next. Life does not position us to always go forth and go forward in the name of progress. For many reasons, including early childhood trauma, family

You see here the three phases of a mentorship. They are in a row, there is a progression. We do expect that Connection happens first and once that’s felt by both mentor and mentee that we can move into the Growth phase. We do expect that as a result of a meaningful friendship of at least two years, that has moved in and out and back and forth between the first two phases over time that the young person WILL move into the Contribution phase. Life does not wait for us to complete one phase and indicate to it that we would like to move onto the next. Life does not position us to always go forth and go forward in the name of progress.

For many reasons, including early childhood trauma, family dysfunction and disruption, learning and processing disorders, mental and physical health issues, we understand, in fact we KNOW that working with young people to support them through to adulthood with success is a LONG game. It takes flexibility, fluidity, creative thinking, patience, endurance, and sometimes standing DOWN while time does its magical way of healing and offering of perspective and next steps.

The things you see under each phase are the things, based on research and our 17 years in practice that we see and can expect to see in each phase. These outcomes are measured by 1-2 indicators each as gathered by our own data collection, data collected by our partner school districts, and as compared with city, state, and national averages of similar populations.

Okay, but what do the phases look like in real life?


I’m going to bring you back to that hot day at the end of May at the Petaluma High School track and field. The mighty 6th graders at Valley Vista School were not disqualified that day, although as the last heats of the last races were lining up we still did not know our fate. What we did know, and what we had prepared for was this moment.

By the time the 800 meter running race happens, the true results are pretty much a foregone conclusion. Nothing that could happen at those last hard runs would make or break the outcomes. The sun is sideways in the sky, by about 2:30pm as West Side Relays try hard to stay on schedule. It always runs late and some schools have already gone back to meet buses and dismissal times. Tents and signs have been taken down. Wrappers from power bars and empty water bottles lay strewn across the lawn and blow across the track in the warm Petaluma wind.

We had one runner in the last heat of the 800 meter race. Now, if any of you are runners or follow

Now, if any of you are runners or follow track, you know that this race is brutal. Two times around the track, half of a mile at a full sprint is really asking just too much of anyone. One actually has time in the 800 meter race to move through all 5 of the stages of grieving. One has to be more than she ever thought she could be just to finish.

Our brave last runner was a boy who’s ADHD had become so overwhelming and so much in the way of his ability to feel successful in school and in life that anxiety and depression had taken up residence in his little body. But he was one of the bravest and most heart driven kids I knew. He also happened to be, come to find out, a very good and very natural runner. The problem was that while after months of training, he could physically run the race, I still struggled to find the magic formula to keep him mentally tough enough to finish as strong as I knew he could. But we were out of time. I sat on the grass in the middle of the track, closed my eyes and mentally ran the race: each quarter, each half lap, every breath, every stride, every rotation and every word we say in our heads to ourselves when we think we are not good enough to win. And then the answer came to me.

I took my guy aside and said this: “Look, the first lap is about natural ability, which you have plenty of. But, the second lap is about who you are and what you are made of. It’s about what you tell yourself in the moments of pain and hardship in order to survive. Even experienced runners often feel like they have nothing left when they come to the corner of the last lap of the 800 Meters. But the truth is, if we really had nothing left, we would collapse. Our minds and our hearts may have given up, but our bodies always have something left. So, I’m going to give you a trick, but you have to trust me. I know it sounds ridiculous, but if you want to do this, you have to trust me.”

Now he and I had lots of time together over the last months and I had come to know just how hard it was for him to maintain just the basics of hygiene and eating and sleeping and getting to school and homework. Our training was another thing, but another thing he WANTED to do and so even though I was a stranger to him, I came consistently, and reflected back to him his light and his strength, I took time to know him, so that I could help him know and believe in himself. CONNECTION. He was brave enough to trust me all the way through and I knew he would trust me now. GROWTH.

“Okay: Just as you enter the last corner of the last lap, look for me, listen for me to shout, ‘Locomotive!’

When you hear that, picture a steam locomotive in your mind; see the wheels going round with those bars that turn them in the same way that your arms follow your stride, and then hear the rhythmic sound of the steam shooting up out of the train just like I taught you to push out your breath in the same powerful force – make the sound of the engine as it gains speed, as you gain speed. Whoo….whooo…..whoooo….whooooo. Let your arms pull you forward, feel your stride lengthen as I promised you it would and push out your air, let your shoulders drop and your neck release.

Whoo. Whoo. Whoo. Blow out your air and feel a burst of energy, of steam

Blow out your air and feel a burst of energy, of steam power, come from behind you. Push out your air and RUN. ”

He was a bundle of nerves and feeling worn out by the time his heat was called. When the start whistle blew, it seemed like the other four runners shot past him within seconds. I couldn’t tell if he even knew, his head was forward, his form was perfect, his expression was fixed and intense. But by the time he came close to rounding the last corner of the second lap, he was really struggling, he looked like he might stop altogether but then I saw him looking for me. All the other runners, coaches and teachers had gone down to the finish line, but I found myself running alongside him, “Not yet,” I called, “not yet…” as we came to the first step of the last stretch to the finish line, we locked eyes and I yelled, “NOW! LOCOMOTIVE!” and his whole body seemed to charge forward, arms reaching and stretching and flailing, head whipping side to side, mouth open, spit flying as the breath was forced out like the engine, tears streaming as he crossed the finish line.

His team in their red capes were screaming and cheering for him-hugging and laughing and jumping on each other into a big

All the other runners, coaches and teachers had gone down to the finish line, but I found myself running alongside him, “Not yet,” I called, “not yet…” as we came to the first step of the last stretch to the finish line, we locked eyes and I yelled, “NOW! LOCOMOTIVE!” and his whole body seemed to charge forward, arms reaching and stretching and flailing, head whipping side to side, mouth open, spit flying as the breath was forced out like the engine, tears streaming as he crossed the finish line. His team in their red capes were screaming and cheering for him-hugging and laughing and jumping on each other into a big

His team in their red capes were screaming and cheering for him – hugging and laughing and jumping on each other, finally collapsing into a big dog pile of eleven year olds.

Many of us standing around watching were crying as he called out to me, “Coach! It worked! It TOTALLY WORKED!!!”

CONNECTION. GROWTH.

What about CONTRIBUTION?

It was a couple of years later, I was in my first year as Director of Mentor Me, when driving by Petaluma High behind the track in the late afternoon in May, I saw the tents and the balloons and the signs and realized it was the day of the West Side Relays. I couldn’t help but pull in and climb up into the stands. I sat by myself in the far corner, in my suit and my bun and in my new life. Nostalgia swept over me. The faces and the emotions, the very feeling of the heat and the wind and hope that we kept until the bitter end that day. Man I missed those kids and my baseball hat. I heard the gun go off for what seemed to be the last heat of the 800 Meters. I saw 5 runners take off. They all stayed together in a pack for most of the first lap but then a few fell back and eventually they were all spread out. One boy was far behind the rest. In fact two of the runners finished as he was just halfway through his second lap. As he came painfully around the last corner of the last lap, I thought he might stop and then I saw what looked like a teenage boy sprinting across the grass and yelling to the runner.

There was something familiar in this teenage kid as I watched his head going side to side and watched him thrusting his arms forward in an exaggerated runner’s gate. I watched as the runner responded to his coach, mimicking the gait and then shooting forward with new found determination and speed. The teen ran alongside him the last 100 meters and across the finish line. I felt myself standing up and tears streaming down my face. It was Locomotive, it was my boy, now a West Side Relays volunteer coach, and it was our trick.

It was our story and now it was his story and it would be that young embattled runner’s story too. CONTRIBUTION.


WE are here tonight because we know that while about 75% of kids can and will successfully access their educations and become successful adults, about 25% need MORE. They need deeper interventions and advocacy of all kinds.

If we truly believe that there are NO THROWAWAY KIDS, then for EACH of those precious lives, we have to come together and build individual education and life plans for them.

We must build teams of professionals, volunteers, donors and stakeholders. We MUST do this agency by agency, program by program, school by school, neighborhood by neighborhood, adult by adult, kid by kid.

THIS is how, together, we will change the world.