This week I met my "Little" for the very first time. I've recently become a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, an agency that matches adults with young people.
After much thought, I joined the group's school-based program, which requires that I meet with my little sister once weekly at her school for one hour. This seemed to be the best fit for my schedule.
Before I arrived at the elementary school, I thought briefly of what our first encounter might be like. I wondered what we'd say to each other to break the ice? Would she like me, I wondered?
She was small and sweet, with a carefully guarded excitement. I sensed her courage as she fought through a nervousness to give me a tour of her school and to even introduce me to friends, relatives, and a former teacher.
I remembered myself at her age, an awkward bundle of inner curiosity and social reluctance, preferring often to hide in books but open and eager for friendship. Every day was a new experience for me.
We ate lunch together quietly, then we played a brief game before she headed back to class and I left for work. I breathed a sigh of relief. Things had gone well, it seemed. I had finally taken the plunge.
I've always believed in the concept of giving back to the next generation through mentoring. I'd wrestled with my desire to have free weekends, however, and whether or not to add more into my hectic schedule.
When would the time be right? There was never a good answer for me, so once I found out this national program had options, I decided to make the commitment.
Some of the statistics on mentoring are startling. According to one report, youth who are mentored are 46 percent less likely to use drugs, 59 percent get better grades, and 73 percent raised their goals as a result of the experience.
Mentoring strengthens societies by providing encouragement and connection to young people.
Mentors benefit from the experience, too. Research shows that those who wondered if their differing backgrounds, race, or gender might cause a barrier actually found they broadened their own perspectives as a result of interacting with children who were different than themselves.
I've heard it said that we should always have three friends in our lives. One who is ahead of us that we look up to and follow, one we walk beside, and one we reach back to help along. This last friend is the part of us that longs to mentor, to pass along what we've learned thus far on the journey, to help out the next person.
Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, ages, economic and educational backgrounds. Some are young and energetic, others are retired with a few extra hours on hand. Who you are is a unique gift that some eager young person out there can benefit from learning about.
To find out how you can become a mentor, contact Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Chattanooga or one of the many local mentoring agencies in town. If you are already a mentor, e-mail me about your own experience; I got a lot to learn.
Tabi Upton, MA-lpc, is a therapist at CBI-Richmont Counseling Center and founder of www.chattanoogacounselor.com, an online self-help and services resource site. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.