Feature Leadership

Just Be There: My Experience as a Youth Mentor – and How You Can Make an Impact, Too!

By Erica N. Brown (Epsilon Theta, California State University, Sacramento)

Growing up, I didn’t know what a mentor was, because I was lucky to have what I had. I had a wonderful family and other supportive adults. I participated in sports and extracurriculars, and school wasn’t too stressful for me. Most of the kids around me came from similar backgrounds. Although I had my struggles, overall, life wasn’t too bad.

Erica and her mentor cohort

Then in fall 2017, I was being interviewed to volunteer as a mentor in Aging UP, a local nonprofit in Sacramento. Their mission is “to empower youth with experience in foster care to successfully transition into adulthood.” The interview was intense; I was asked questions about my personality, strengths, weaknesses, hopes, experiences, learning lessons and personal goals within the program. Although I was excited to help, I didn’t think I really had “the experience” to be a mentor to a youth in foster care. Many of my friends don’t have kids, I had no knowledge of the foster care system, and I didn’t feel like I had gone through enough perseverance to relate to a teen—my future mentee—who experienced the difficulty of being removed from their family. I just knew I wanted to help, and I could only do that if I put myself out there.

Erica and her mentee

Now, three and a half years later, I’m still matched with my mentee! We are one of two mentoring matches from Aging UP’s very first cohort still with their original match. I have seen my mentee grow from a shy, quiet high school freshman into a confident, hopeful high school senior! Our bond didn’t happen overnight; at first, we closely followed the program’s minimum hours required per month by attending group events that the program hosts as well as by hanging out one-on-one. Our conversations were challenging in the beginning, but I knew from the program’s training that I just had to be patient, offer ideas and options, and ask great questions.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was someone who remained a constant in her life. It was also the year that I saw her as well as our relationship grow the most. Since we couldn’t do more than sit, eat and talk (which is our favorite thing to do!), we really got to know each other more, and I felt like “a mentor” finally. I’ve shared with her about my sorority experience and showed her around my alma mater, Sacramento State; I got excited when she responded with interest in joining a sorority when she heads to college! Even one of my personal program dreams came true: I helped my mentee with her first resume and cover letter!

I have learned that consistency and follow-through are where it starts if you want to be a mentor to a youth in foster care, or anyone. You don’t need specific experience. Just being there for someone and letting them know constantly that you are truly there for them – that’s the key to being a great mentor. I’ve only gone a handful of weeks during our time together where I may not have gotten to message her. Although I may not see my mentee in person every day or week, I let her know I am genuinely thinking of her and check in when she may be going through something.

I knew I had made an impact when I received the text below in response to my Thanksgiving message last year. It was one of the best texts I’ve ever received in my life, and I knew the program’s mission was really coming to life! You too can make this impact by reaching out and learning more about a youth mentoring program that’s local to you. Don’t be scared; you will make a huge difference not only on your future mentee, but yourself too!