Give back…And make it last

iMentor - waiting teen boy.jpg

One young man sits alone during a mentoring session — even though he didn’t yet have a mentor at this time. Which reminds me: Guys, we need you, too!

I always thought I would study engineering when I was younger. I took what today are STEM classes – chemistry, calculus and anything I could get my hands on to make a technical future possible.

Until Day 1 of engineering school orientation at Texas A&M. That’s when I learned that, unless I declared an area of specialization that day, mine would be Aeronautical Engineering.

At which point I promptly changed my major — to journalism. Never looked back.

Starting college is one thing

It took me twice as long as most people to earn just one degree, but I did eventually finish. What I wished I’d had in high school, though, was a college and career counselor.

I don’t know if this support system is any better now than 30 years ago, but why doesn’t anyone tell you to study what you’re naturally good at? I mean, I got the news from a friend of my brother who hardly knew me!

Still, even if you get into college, it’s a whole other thing to stay in. There could be a whole slew of reasons why it’s so hard, but in my case, my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer in what would’ve been my junior year. For two years, I worked odd jobs trying to help support my mom before realizing I wasn’t going back to TAMU and that I would have to forfeit my scholarships.

Perhaps feeling a bit rebellious, I tried next to travel the world as a flight attendant, only to ground my own travel career when I realized grief wasn’t a license to run away from reality.

Thank goodness my dad left me with perseverance. It took something like five tries before I earned my bachelor’s degree  – moving from city to city, school to school, earning credits, credits not transferring, withdrawing, re-enrolling. What a wild ride. Then I got married, still with two years of school to go.

I only hope my mentee has that “counselor”

So, that was me. Now, I mentor someone else who could very well face a first-generation college student scenario like mine. The difference is, this time someone will be there to catch her and keep cheering her on.

When we meet each month during the school year, a common theme in our conversations is how life often doesn’t run in a straight line…it’s a kind of winding thing. But we keep getting up and going — right turns, wrong turns…we keep going.

And she can totally do it. She can nail university studies. Heck, she could nail law school. I mean, this girl is smart and driven, and she can do pretty much anything she wants. Well, with the proper support system around her.

Family is (almost) everything

Thank goodness her parents are constantly encouraging her to excel in school so she can continue her studies in college. But even they don’t know what to expect or how to help her prepare.

That’s where Mentor 2.0 comes in.

I’d been seeking a mentoring opportunity for years. It started when I was a student at the University of Houston, where I eventually graduated, and where I’d seen a sign recruiting tutors for high school students at a school across the highway from campus.

Since way back then, I would get on mailing lists and wait for programs to spin up, when in 2016 I finally heard about Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Mentor 2.0 program.

The big sell for me was that Mentor 2.0 specifically targets college-bound high school students who may lack the support network needed to get them to and through college.

And honestly, Mentor 2.0 is really doable for the average working person:

  • One supervised, face-to-face meeting monthly (with mentors, mentees and super-committed school faculty and BBBS staff);
  • Simple, weekly assignments to collaborate on via a secure online environment, and
  • An optional note to the mentee in between assignments, via a secure chat tool, to help them stay encouraged.

The time commitment is usually about 30 minutes a week, with once-a-month meetings at about two hours each.

Now, don’t flinch: This is a four-year commitment. I mean, we’re not stuffing envelopes, friends; we trying to affect a whole lifetime, right? That takes a little commitment. For me after just one year, the payoff has already been huge.

So glad I did it

This is seriously one of the best commitments I’ve ever made. Not only are my mentee and I well matched (similar interests, goals and personalities), but she inspires me so much and makes me want to give her all the support I didn’t know how to find myself. (Heck, she even inspired me to return to school!)

I won’t lie, though: All the “woulda, coulda, shouldas” sometimes get in my head. It sometimes takes me a little while to shake it off and remember this is not about me.

An opportunity with loads of dividends

If you’re in a position to influence a young person’s life, do it. If you live in Colorado and can do it through Mentor 2.0 I’d be more than happy to connect you to this fantastic program.

The thing is, you just never know which other lives you might be affecting besides your student’s. Because when the mentee’s life starts to change, they will start to see themselves as an agent of change in the world.

And then there’s just no stopping them.

Help them get started. Join us.

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Glancing in the rear-view mirror

rear-view-mirror-1182330-640x480Welp.

It’s going to be a lot harder than I thought to recover my blogging rhythm, but I need to start somewhere. It’s time to admit I may not be able to research, write, polish and photo edit like I am used to doing.

But one thing I can do is share what I’m learning along this new path – the path to gratitude for full-time work again. It couldn’t be a nicer arrangement with more rewarding opportunity. I’m pretty excited to start the new gig next week.

I hate to say good things come to those who wait, but waiting can really bring about the right thing, at the right time.

I do have to say, I’m really thankful for the season leading up to this, which I was so sure was empty and purposeless. (Yeah, I know – oh ye of little faith. Don’t tell me you haven’t been there, too.)

But God planned this time for teaching me some of the most important lessons of my life. Here are a few:

  • “Stuff” doesn’t matter. People matter.
  • We can get by on much less than we think. Anything besides the basics are wants, not needs. We confuse them a lot.
  • Learning can happen in any environment. We just have to want it.
  • Family is everything.
  • Kindness: Friends, we’re going to have to try a lot harder at being kind to one another. This world and all its challenges and distractions fool us into believing we’re that different from one another to be able to love each other — when in reality, we’re so much alike. Let’s focus on that.
  • Oh. It’s not about me.

Corners

house-appartement-corner-pmg

Corners are meant for one thing – for getting around to another side. They’re made for turning.

I’ve encountered lots of corners lately, and I’ve been trying to make sense of them the last few weeks.Here are a few of them and what I’ve learned.

  • Cooking: On a limited budget, you get better at a lot of DIY things. My experience making meals from food we grow has been so great. I’m so glad we know what it’s like to know the benefits of fresh, garden-to-table food. Even for meals that don’t come from the garden, I’ve found cooking to be incredibly relaxing.
  • Sewing/Making: Something I never thought I’d take on, especially since I’m building on skills I first gained in, oh, 7th grade. Time to quilt is getting slimmer, but I am promising myself that I’ll make it work. I plan to keep that promise.
  • Writing/Blogging: One of my best experiences in recent years. For all the hiccups that can cause someone to come to a full stop when blogging, my activity has slowed a lot lately (more about why in a minute), but I have no intention of stopping. I just hope Poor Mexican Gone will keep being about learning, discovery and connecting dots.
  • Employment : You may know I’ve been freelancing for the better part of the last handful of years – something that followed me more than I pursued it. Still, I took it as a smile from God during a season of intense questioning of my identity.

Which leads me to this: I start a new job at the end of the month. As good as freelancing has been for my freedom, healing and, heck, my tennis game, I’ve truly missed the social interaction that comes with being part of a team. So I’m joining one.

It’s not just one corner that led me to this. It’s more like a long series of four corners. You might even call it a full circle.

After a busy freelance season this summer that included shotgun international travel, it’s time to settle into a job offered to me on that trip. I couldn’t be more pleased, humbled and grateful.

I fully expect to pivot around a few more corners in my lifetime, but for now, this one is a great turn at a great time and, I hope, with the potential for great impact in the lives of others.

To board or not to board? That is the question

Woman dressed in suit talking in meeting

A few years ago, I joined my first board. As a strategist, I looked forward to contributing to the success of a nonprofit.

Like with anything new, I had questions about “how this works” and what I should expect. Most of those surfaced as I served and learned the ropes. Along the way, I asked people I knew whose board experience I could learn from.

Based on their experience and mine, I decided to share a few pointers – especially for people looking to give back to their community and beyond. It’s not an exhaustive list, but good food for thought. I’d love to hear yours, too, in the comments.

Dos and Don’ts of joining a board
If you’re considering joining a board, it’s good to go in with eyes wide open. Because engaging in this kind of work really should come with a clear understanding of commitments and the real needs of the organization from its trustees.

  • DO join a board if the organization’s mission is something close to your heart. It helps if you’re knowledgeable in the space it serves, too.
  • DO join a board if you have specific skills or a network that can be helpful to its advancement. Are you networked with like-minded people? They might be able to support the org or even be committee or board candidates themselves.
  • DO, in most cases, expect to do some fundraising. That means at some point, you’ll need to pound the proverbial pavement with your contacts and others, in hopes of helping your organization reach its revenue* goals. It means asking for money. Lots of folks are very uncomfortable with this, but let me tell you – if you have the right potential donor, they want to be asked. I’m a pastor’s kid, so I grew up hearing calls for offerings. And apparently the “ask” rubbed off on me, so I’m not at all shy about it – especially if I know someone has demonstrated interest in lending financial support before.
  • DON’T join a board without a clear idea of what your time commitment will be. If you only have 2 hours per month that you can devote to it, make sure it will fit into your schedule so you can maximize your time and make the best contribution possible. Nothing breeds resentment like demands that exceed your availability or don’t consider your time.
  • DON’T join a board that has not clearly outlined and agreed to domains and responsibilities of staff and board members.

What would you add to this list if someone asked you whether they should join a board?

*Don’t be fooled by the word “nonprofit.” Like any for-profit, a nonprofit needs income (revenue) to meet expenses like payroll, program administration, marketing and donor development. Many parallels are clear, too: Donors = customers; program development = product development. At a high level, the needs are basically the same.

Photo credit: UN Ebola Task Force meeting on 19 September 2014 via photopin (license). No derivatives.

And we thought blogging was risky business

meerkat on yellow backgroundAs if life with social media weren’t real-time enough. I never thought I’d be curious enough to jump into video, let alone real-time video.

For the moment, I’m not. Not personally, anyway. Heck, I hardly take selfies, much less video of any kind. But I am fascinated by emerging technologies and their potential uses.

I’m sure the response to live video tweeting tools is something like it was back when blogs and social media were winding up, especially in corporate environments:

  • Too risky: Who’s gonna control outgoing content?
  • Too raw: Great. Now we need another editor.
  • Too transparent: The execs will never let us do it.

And yet, just like social media, opportunities abound. If your marketing or communication needs call for the immediacy of video, it’s official: the tools are here.

The space is definitely evolving, but between Vine (edited), Meerkat and Periscope (both real-time), a few practical ideas that come to mind are:

  • Conferences, concerts, sporting events: Real-time action & “reporting” (I cringe to use the term, but hey, these tools make citizen reporters of us all, with or without contextual info)
  • Farmers (or any) markets: Stream what’s at market – today only
  • Flash sales: Discounts on new or limited inventory; viewer-only discounts
  • Restaurants/Food Trucks/Food Service/Cooking Classes: Watch it being made; drive instant traffic
  • Disaster response & fundraising: Show what it’s like “on the ground” (depends on availability of communications services, which can be a tall order in a crisis)
  • Oh and of course – law enforcement. Can’t forget that.

The possibilities are really endless and don’t necessarily have to be invasive or high-risk, although for those of us unaccustomed to putting our entire lives out there, this can feel pretty voyeuristic.

Some folks will “go there” and it will be interesting to see how responsible users will be. But I’m more excited to see how this space matures and the good things it has the potential to do. My mind’s wheels are definitely turning.

“I just want her to be somebody.”

Painting of woman in pink dress holding yellow and white flowers

Meet Esperanza*. She’s a wannabe.

Well, kind of. I believe the artist actually wanted her to be like the girl in this Fernando Botero painting. Her proportions are similar to a Botero, but Esperanza appears notably more Caribbean.

I bought her for USD$50 at the foot of the hill where the original Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, used to be perched. (Here’s the Montana today, rebuilt after the massive 7.0 earthquake in 2010, which killed more than 250,000 people and which I still can hardly talk about. Maybe soon.)

Anyway, that trip was my first trip to the developing world – and, surprisingly, my only trip to Haiti (hopefully not my last).

Learning to tell stories
It was where I began learning from the best — like photojournalist Chuck Bigger — things like the composition of a great photo. It’s where I learned how to gather and tell an organization’s story from the point of view of its “customers” — those who benefited from its services.

It’s where my eyes were opened to the many opportunities we take for granted in the United States and developed world. It’s a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless: Most of the world is not born into opportunity like Americans are.

Common ground
But parents everywhere still want the same for their children – to be healthy, to be loved, to belong, to have a better life than they had.

I can’t tell you how many mothers or caregivers I’ve interviewed who only ever wanted their children to grow up to be successful. When we would ask what their dreams were for their child, most replies inevitably included:

“I just want her to be somebody.”

I used to think that meant they thought their children weren’t “somebody” already. But I believe it’s more that the child’s potential hadn’t yet been uncovered. When it was, stories changed. Families changed. Futures changed.

For some families, it may mean a child has completed primary school and can work in the local market selling goods that help the family with income (not an ideal situation but certainly a real one). Or a high school education, which may mean a more technical vocation. A university education means a young person can become “a professional,” with a sustainable income to support even an extended family, including education for siblings and others.

Children are the key
When a child’s potential is developed, they become somebody who can bring health and hope a family hasn’t seen, lifting them out of poverty. And it doesn’t stop there. It ripples out to the community too, and sometimes even nations.

That’s why I call Esperanza a wannabe. Because I believe she wants to be somebody. Maybe somebody like a Botero – only better.

*Esperanza means “hope” in Spanish. This painting was named by my talented friend Kris, who kindly stretched the canvas she’s painted on. The canvas, by the way, is reused upholstery fabric.

So you wanna work in nonprofit?

Woman holds up handmade jewelry for display

This proud mom in Dominican Republic shows off her handmade jewelry – skills she gained through a microenterprise program for single parents implemented by one of Compassion International’s church partners. Her small business helps her sustain her family’s livelihood.

It’s become such a romantic idea to work for a good cause. So romantic, many Americans would probably rather work for a cause than for the Man.

It’s certainly noble.
It’s definitely rewarding.

But don’t be fooled. It is also hard work. And I don’t just mean long hours.

I’m convinced there is an evil in the world that doesn’t want to see good to come of anything – including whatever good things you set out to do.

Whether it’s more red tape than is necessary to get something done to logistical nightmares to communication misunderstandings, it’s good to be prepared for whatever comes your way.

As the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed. Be alert and wary that the good work you do will meet resistance.

That’s when you pull up your big-girl/boy panties, stand up tall and fight your way through. I’m confident you will find reward on the other side. Fatigue too, but it will be the best fatigue you’ve ever felt.