Cait was looking for an opportunity to give back. She yearned for an opportunity to make her life more well rounded; to find a volunteer opportunity that fed her soul. She stumbled upon Affinity Mentoring in the tail end of 2019. Then the pandemic happened and starting something new was set aside, for the time being at least…
As the fog began to clear a bit in 2021 she reached back out to Affinity Mentoring.
“I was so nervous the first time I met my match,” recalls Cait. She remembers thinking, “I don’t have a ton of experience with kids!” Cait hadn’t done anything like mentoring before.
“I was so worried about being matched and not being able to click with my student, but Rocio does a really great job of pairing mentors with their mentees,” she says. “After our interview, Rocio knew exactly the kind of student I would pair well with. She read me like a book. She paired me with a high energy, creative girl and the match was perfect!”
Cait was matched with Merlyn, a spunky, chatty, and excitable 8 year old. “We’re both the middle of 5 children. During our mentoring time we talk a lot, read, make crafts, and play. Family is very important to her and she has a good support system. She enjoys lots of quality time with her mom.”
Her goal is to make space for Merlyn to express her authentic self without fear of being teased or mocked. Cait explains that mentoring can be a healing experience. She recalls being nicknamed “loud girl” in school. “I was hyper, loud, and weird. I want Merlyn to be able to have a safe space to be her authentic self.”
Learning about another culture has also been an added benefit. “It’s very eye opening, she’s learning two languages. Activities like reading together go a little differently than when I used to read with the boys I nannied in Ada.”
Whether it’s about her latest craft at her art table at home or stories of her ‘millions’ of cousins, Cait has found the key to mentoring – being present and listening.
“Mentoring is such a rewarding experience for both mentor and mentee. You can do so much good in such little time. I don’t think people realize how low of a time commitment mentoring can be and how easy it is to fit into your schedule. I hope more people look into mentoring,” she explains.
Although the mentoring commitment of one year has been completed, Cait will be returning this Fall to mentor Merlyn again. “I want it to be a long-time match. I want to be there, cheering, as Merlyn graduates high school.”
Become a Mentor Match Sponsor. Make a small, monthly contribution to Affinity. Your gift will not only help students academically, but it’ll also give them the social and emotional support they need to work towards a positive future.
Become aMentor. Sign up today to mentor one student for one hour week starting this fall and ask a friend to mentor too (virtual and in-person mentoring options available)!
As part of our 2021 Community Listening Project we asked the public if we should provide extra training for mentors related to diversity, equity, and inclusion topics specific to mentoring. Ninety-two percent of respondents said that it was either important, or very important for our organization to provide this (page 4), so we complied!
If you’re not completely sure how putting time and resources into DEI work relates to mentoring, and us fulfilling our mission and vision for Affinity, we love learning with you! Check out the extensive research we have been conducting to make sure we facilitate amazing mentoring in this recent blog. We are grateful for the Steelcase Foundation whose grant has made it possible for this training to be free and widely available for AM partners, staff, mentors, and board members.
Anti-Racism Training Series
In February, March, and April of 2022 Affinity Mentoring facilitated a three tiered training (levels 101, 201, and a community panel) focused on Anti-Racism in Education and Mentoring. We had 71 total attendees at these three, free training sessions, in addition to three expert trainers and 5 panelists.
DEI 101 Training: Our trainers included Vanessa Jimenez, Founder/CEO of Mezcla Mosaic Collaborative and Marlene Kowalski-Braun, GVSU Associate Vice President for Enrollment Development Deputy Inclusion and Equity Officer for our 101 training. They facilitated a brave, healthy, inquisitive space for individuals to begin thinking about how other’s racial life experiences might be different from our own, and why it matters in education and mentoring. They invited participants to engage in critical reflection about foundations of DEI work, including defining diversity, equity, inclusion, and intersectionality both personally and organizationally. They helped participants develop an understanding of social identity, white supremacy, implicit bias, and microaggressions and how they shape a person’s experience of power, privilege, and oppression both individually and organizationally. Lastly, we discussed our personal and collective responsibility to keep ourselves and each other accountable to anti-racist work, especially in mentoring.
DEI 201 Training: Christine Mwangi, CEO and Founder of Grounded In Equity, President and CEO of Be A Rose, member of the Affinity Mentoring Board of Directors, and KDL Director of Fund Development, led our 201 training. We dove deeper together into how race impacts education in our community, and the individual and community-level steps that we can take to support all students succeeding. Christine helped us define and understand specific terms and ideas when discussing the racial achievement gap in our local schools, including redlining and its lasting effects on school systems. We discussed systemic outcomes that disproportionately affect students of color within the academic sector, and how individuals can help make a positive impact through interactions with students and mentees. Below are a list of excellent video resources that Christine shared with us.
DEI 301 Training: Our third training for this year was actually a panel discussion with local experts on DEI, education, and mentoring who helped us take the things we learned in our previous two trainings, and understand them more fully in Grand Rapids and Wyoming. Our panel included Kyle Lim of the Urban Core Collective, Rafael Castanon of Health Net of West Michigan (and AM mentor), Alex Kuiper of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, Brandy Lovelady Mitchell of the Michigan Education Association, and Erika VanDyke of the Urban Core Collective (and an AM mentor).
Mentors, staff, and partners were invited to submit questions to the panel ahead of time. Some of our key questions and take always from the nearly two hours of discussion included:
We learned about institutional racism, redlining, and other systems that make racism a part of our schools. Sometimes it feels like the problems are so big that there is very little we can do about them. Is that true?
Panelist responses: We need to remember that progress is not linear, and we need to adapt to changes so that we keep moving forward. Racism is meant to exhaust and paralyze use; when issues are this complex, remember to focus on students, families, and communities and their needs. The work is worth it, because racism continues to hurt real people, and we cannot move at the same pace that the resistance is moving; we have to work faster if we actually want to make change. We need to imagine the future we want to live in and begin shaping it, even if we can’t fully see it yet. Never forget that system level change can start with voting! Vote for people who will make the changes you want to see.
Is there any work being done already in Grand Rapids to help make our schools anti-racist?
Panelist responses: Challenge your school board and the schools executive cabinet to make sure that they are engaging in real DEI work! You can send them letters, and attend school board meetings (even if you don’t have students attending that school), and the Urban Core Collective can help you prepare letters and statements; they are also helping to organize parents/caregivers, and you can contact email@example.com if you want to participate.
What are ways that we can start conversations about race with children and students without scaring them?
Panelist responses: Let discussions be organic and student-led, and never engage in conversations with your mentee because you want to, but let them lead so that you don’t cause extra harm. Acknowledge when you don’t know the answer. You can discover the answer alongside students and mentees, and even ask your Affinity Site Coordinator to help you find resources to do that.
Always validate student emotions and feelings, and ask them open-ended questions, and provide them with clarifying statements to help them process their own thoughts and feelings. Model to them by doing your own mirror work and showing them that it is healthy to learn new things.
Mentors: what is something that you have learned about your mentee’s culture from mentoring?
Panelist (and attendee) answers: Find out what your mentee is passionate about, and let that lead your conversations and learning! As they get more comfortable, they will be excited to share, and feel safe to share more intimate information, like their culture, with you.
How can we encourage mentees to embrace their own culture?
Panelist answers: Model this behavior to your mentees by talking about your own life experiences and culture, and then inviting your mentee into the conversation.
Use diverse books and resources in the mentor centers to talk about different cultures, and find resources that match your mentee’s culture and invite them to be proud about it.
Make sure to connect the micro level work with the macro level work; we won’t need to help students “rediscover” or share their cultures and experiences if we fight against the systems that make it hard for them to share those things naturally. By improving the whole system, we make this easier and healthier for each student!
DEI and Anti-Racism Resources
Some resources and reading that panelists recommended included:
Lastly, we were able to share some resources with all of our participants that Affinity Mentoring has been developing to help give mentors and partners more resources to continue learning and growing together with each other and their mentees. We highly encourage you to check out and use these resources, and talk to your Affinity Mentoring team members for more learning opportunities!
As we close out this 2021-2022 mentoring year, we will be publishing our full 2022 Community Listening Project results showing that:
85.2% of respondents tell us that it is very important or important that we “publicly support groups of people who are dismissed or unsafe in our community”,
85.9% of respondents tell us that it is very important or important that we put time and resources into “finding more diverse mentors”, and
80.8% of respondents tell us that it is very important or important that we “provide yearly diversity training for mentors”.
Based on this, and the overwhelmingly positive attendance and feedback from this year’s trainings, we will continue to provide new training series each year, giving mentors and partners opportunities to learn about key areas of identity development for students, and how it relates to creating and maintaining an amazing mentoring program with short and long term student benefits. Our 2022-2023 mentoring year DEI training topics will focus on gender identity and sexual orientation. We promise to continue listening to you and your needs, and making decisions for our programming based on the most up to date, peer-reviewed research on how to support students and fulfill the mission and vision of Affinity Mentoring to the best of our ability.
Debbie, a kind and gentle soul, has been mentoring students for the past decade. She heard about the opportunity through one of Affinity’s partners, Mars Hill Bible Church. “I liked the one-on-one program where you invest in long-term relationships, build trust, and watch them grow.”
Debbie recalls the first few weeks of mentoring, “I was nervous about helping with school stuff and getting more immediate results. Then I realized it’s more of an investment of one hour at a time, it’s building the relationship and the foundation a bit more each visit.”
Victoria, a compassionate and loving person, has four daughters, including Stephanie and Emelinda who have both been part of the mentoring program. She remembers first hearing about the program when Emelinda came home from Kindergarten saying, “Mami, quiero un mentor.” She helped her sign up, however, Victoria never realized what this relationship would blossom into or how their two families would intertwine.
Emelinda was soon matched with Debbie. Victoria describes Debbie as someone with a huge heart that loves working with kids. She recalls Debbie always being at every event. After a bit of time together, she saw her shy and quiet daughter come out of her shell and become more confident. Emelinda started to play more, talk more, paint, and improve her English.
“[They’re] my surrogate family,” smiles Debbie. “Her mom and I have the same birthday and we always text each other. They are a really nice family that supports each other. I’m glad I can be a part of it and that they trust me.” Victoria agrees, “God put her in our path, she is part of our family and my daughters are really happy with her. Every time our birthday comes around we ask each other – so where are we going to celebrate?”
“Debbie gives good advice, like another mother, to my daughters, but also to me. She tells me I’m doing a good job, to be patient, and not to worry because I’m a good mom. No one has ever told me that before, not even my own mother. I don’t know whether she is like another mother to my daughters, or to me,” explains Victoria.
After Emelinda and Debbie had been a match for 6 years, it was coming to a close. Emelinda was entering middle school and yearning to spend more time with friends. Debbie and Victoria both felt the change and comforted each other as they saw her pull away, not wanting to talk, and becoming more distant. Debbie wasn’t sure what to do. However, after talking to Affinity staff member, Laura Ward, she helped her understand that she was no longer in need of a mentor and that was OK. Being a mom herself, it finally clicked and she understood not to take it personally, “I thought to myself, ‘I know that age.’”
Victoria remembers, “When [Emelinda] was done with the program I was worried about losing the relationship with Debbie. No one was going to be there helping me, telling me I’m doing a good job. We both cried. I knew, she too, was sad in her heart. We started texting each other. She helped me understand girls go through their changes differently. She kept telling me to be strong, and she would help me. I would repeat it to myself over and over.”
Debbie sees the role of a mentor as an encourager. “I always tell Emelinda ‘You’re so smart, creative, generous, and amazing.’ Later I would hear her repeat it, ‘You know, I am pretty smart and creative.’” Victoria started to feel more confident too, “Now there were two people [Debbie] and I sending Emelinda messages and reinforcing the same thing.”
One day, there was a big surprise for Victoria, “I got her off the bus and she was happy, smiling and said ‘¡Hola Mami!’ and grabbed my hand. Later that evening I sat between my four girls asking them about school.” Emelinda went last, “‘¿Mami, tienes la oportunidad de hablar?’ It was a huge surprise, we talked for over an hour. She recalled Debbie’s talks about how middle school is so different and Emelinda was surprised that everything she said would happen, did.” Afterward they both hugged and finally, turned a corner in their mother-daughter relationship. The first thing Victoria wanted to do was to let Debbie know that she’s going to be OK.
As fate would have it, Emelinda’s younger sister, Stephanie, had been in the mentoring program too. However, due to life circumstances her mentor, Marla, had to leave after a year and Stephanie was devastated. However, Affinity’s Burton site coordinator, Rocio Moreno, recognized this as a great opportunity to bring the two families together again. She reached out to Debbie and Victoria both to see how they felt about matching Debbie with Stephanie – they both wholeheartedly said yes.
Growing up, Stephanie had known Debbie and attended events with her older sister and Debbie. When Stephanie learned that Debbie would now be HER mentor, she started jumping around and was so happy. Victoria says, “Now I don’t have to worry about when they are together. I trust her. She is a huge help to my daughters and they have so much fun together.”
Victoria is a big advocate for mentoring and has already been referring other parents to the program, “Mentors help with the things you can’t teach as a mom or dad. They can play soccer, do different activities, if your kid likes something that you don’t the mentor can do it with them. It’s a whole new experience – for the whole family.”
*Editor’s Note*As most Affinity’s blog articles are captured, I had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Debbie and Victoria to hear their story. Victoria’s interview was in Spanish and Debbie’s in English. Neither one speaks the other language. One of the most remarkable things about their relationships is that despite their language barrier, they have developed this deep, lifelong bond. Our team is honored to have the opportunity to play a role in these two families’ journeys and support where we can in cultivating meaningful relationships and experiences.
What do a Legal Specialist and a 2nd grader have in common? Surprisingly, quite a bit.
Once a week, Rafael and Eliano stroll through the Mentor Center and Media Center, scoping out a good spot to eat their lunch. They giggle to each other and finish each other’s sentences as they recall past mentoring sessions.
Today, they found an open table in the Media Center. As Eliano bites into his fried chicken Rafael pulls out a bag of chips. “Oh! Is that the same kind we had last week?!” exclaims Eliano.
They started meeting this past fall and it’s become their weekly tradition to share their lunches. For Rafael, mentoring is a fun way to spend his lunch hour, “I have to eat anyways so it’s a nice break from my norm. The hardest part is getting there, once I’m there it’s easy.”
Eliano explains, “I wanted a mentor because it seemed fun. My brother, Henry, has a mentor and he said we can do anything!” Right now his favorite mentoring activity is playing money games with Rafael. “[Eliano] does the scoring, so he wins a lot,” laughs Rafael. They’re looking forward to more sunshine and being able to play soccer outside.
Rafael describes Eliano as an energetic, smiley, and happy kid, “Whenever I see him, he’s so full of energy. We read together. We talk about things like which superpowers we’d pick and we like to ask each other a lot of questions to get to know each other.”
Eliano thinks of Rafael as his friend, “I feel really happy when we hang out.” He thinks things would be very different without his weekly lunches with Rafael, “I would be sad, really sad. We’re friends.”
“We usually eat together, play a game, then we just hang out,” says Rafael. Rafael is involved in the local Latino community and is part of the West Michigan Latino Network’s (WMLN) leadership team. He decided to become a mentor after hearing a presentation from Affinity Mentoring at one of their meetings last fall, “I listened to members of the network, well-respected community members, and a mentor share his experience with the program. It inspired me to sign up.”
What Rafael and Eliano didn’t know at the time was that it was the Henry’s (Eliano’s brother) mentor, Gregorio, who shared his experience as a mentor with the WMLN and it was his excitement that inspired Rafael to become a mentor… So essentially Henry recruited his little brother to get a mentor and his mentor, Gregorio, recruited who would become Eliano’s mentor.
“I would encourage folks to do it. I would stress how easy it is once you get it. Monica [SWCC Site Coordinator] makes it so easy [Eliano nods] and I get to hang out with Eliano for an hour,” explains Rafael.
What does Eliano think? “I would tell [students] to get one. I know they really want one.”
If you, or someone you know, would like to learn more about becoming a mentor contact firstname.lastname@example.org or click here >
We are always in need of more mentors, but especially male mentors!