I never liked the term “empty nester.” So much of my life was spent struggling to adopt my two kids. When they headed off to college, it felt like there was a big hole in my heart. I had to find an alternative to begging them to come home.
One day I see a posting for a need for mentors and decide to check it out. When I get the call asking if I would consider being a mentor to five-year-old twins, my immediate reaction is that I am too busy to take that on. Rita, the Program Coordinator, then explains how their Mom is a single parent who came from Sudan, and she really wants her girls to be able to have some of the experiences she can’t give them. A couple days of soul searching makes me realize I can’t say no.
My first introduction to the twins is in their small apartment where they both hide behind the sofa while Rita tries to explain how much fun they are going to have with me. Because they are tiny, I am given two car seats in order to take them on our first outing. I figure a church carnival is a safe beginning. So off we go without them saying a word. Promises of candy and ice cream don’t help the lack of conversation.
The first comment we hear upon entering the festival is “What beautiful daughters you have.” I am not prepared with a response. Being a white Mom with an Asian son and Latino daughter, I am used to getting occasional stares in our not-very diverse community. But I don’t want these sweet little black girls to think I’m trying to replace their Mom. I quickly say “Thanks, they are beautiful, but I’m their mentor.” Silence follows. Thankfully, we see a few furry baby animals ahead which seems to spark their interest. Meanwhile, and ever since, I wonder did I say the right thing? The girls couldn’t comprehend at that point what it meant to be a mentor. But could they have wished I told this stranger I was their mother? Being our first outing together, I didn’t have the courage to even try to ask how they were feeling.
For our second adventure, I decide it will be low-key at our house where we bake cookies and play in the backyard. During the next eight years, I find this is always their favorite activity. And being able to bring cookies, which they helped to make, home to their family, made them feel like superstars.
While at our home they often see my husband, Larry, who they surprisingly bestow big hugs upon immediately seeing. At first, I question why the greater attraction to him than me. Then I realize they don’t have a Dad and getting attention from a male who shows he truly enjoys being with them was an unexpected blessing.
Among the many “firsts” I experience with the twins are their first carousel ride, first visit to a library, first time fishing, and first time they heard the word “college.” Our daughter was a freshman at a local university, and one Saturday they had an open house. So I decide it would be exciting to take the girls to the campus. On the way there, they ask “What is college?” This question is a treat for me, thinking I, as their mentor, get to introduce them to the concept.
During the next eight years, we enjoy spending many Sunday afternoons together. While the girls are both soft-spoken and usually very quiet, I believe they are enjoying the relationship, because they never turn down an opportunity to get together. With their Mom raising five kids in a small apartment on an entry-level salary, I know their exposure to many things I take for granted is very limited.
So our bond grows deeper with each passing year. Then one day, shortly after we celebrate their 13th birthday, I get a call, and they tell me they just found out their family is moving to Alaska the next day. They have no information about where they are going or why and no opportunity for me to see them before they go.
None of my attempts to find them showed any hope. The mentoring program had no clue to where they were, and even social media turned up nothing. I missed them terribly and thought about them often. I felt as if a part of my life was missing.
Five years later, I experience one of the happiest days of my life when I open the door to find these two beautiful girls have come to visit me. They still had relatives in the area and after driving around for quite awhile, they remembered our neighborhood. I could not have been more thrilled!
We talk about many of our past experiences and look at all the photos I was so glad I took whenever we got together. They surprise me when they say they remember the Saturday we went to visit college, and then proceed to tell me how they are both applying to various colleges the next year — one to study criminal justice and the other pre-med. I never would assume that our one little college visit at age five had a direct impact on their decision. However, I learned that one of the great benefits of being a mentor is you never know the impact you might have. And while their visit was short before returning to Alaska, their heartfelt words about how they want to stay connected made me very thankful to have been their mentor.
During the last few years, the girls both joined the National Guard, served in Kuwait, and are now attending college in Anchorage. Their on-going messages confirm the value of our relationship.
For me, the experience of being a mentor has been a unique perk in my life. I’ve had the chance to get to know and experience a part of life situation which I never would have been able to do on my own. The reward perhaps is a richer life for all and memories that last a lifetime.