I pull into the parking lot and turn off the engine, pausing to take a few deep breathes before getting out of my car and heading towards the church entrance. The air is crisp, but I can feel the morning sun warming my back. I was raised Roman Catholic and this church is definitely not that. Church will always be church, however, and I am greeted with handshakes, smiles, and invitations. A familiar voice rings out from a crowd of children: “Ben!** You came, Ben!” A short, energetic child, in his Sunday best, runs over and hugs me. This clean cut appearance takes me off guard as his clothing tastes usually run toward the muddy and grass stained.
“Have a seat over here Ben, I saved seats for you and my family!”
His foster family asks me if the boy, Jeff**, can sit beside me during the service. Being in a strange place with its own traditions and beliefs, I am relieved with the request. I catch up with Jeff about his week and ask if he is nervous about his upcoming performance.
“Nope! I know all my lines” Jeff says with a smile. As he talks, the silver caps on all his teeth catch my eye.
As the main room continues to fill with congregation members and guests alike, I notice that Jeff becomes more anxious by the minute, his eyes darting expectantly toward the entrance, firing off rapid questions such as “Where are they!?!”
“Did you know I am going to another home today? My forever family is coming!”
I am taken aback by this statement. I had no idea his transfer was today. Today, of all days. However, working in this field, I am aware that in foster care and adoption, transfers can and do happen overnight.
The room is almost filled to capacity, and I note the four empty seats that Jeff hopefully reserves for his new parents and extended family. The service starts, and Jeff is distraught. I wish I could tell you that those four seats went to their rightful owners, but I cannot. Neither his current family nor his new parents show up to watch Jeff sing. I try to redirect Jeff’s attention throughout the service; quietly thumb wrestling and playing listening games like “count the ums and uhs of the speaker”.
Jeff delivers a fantastic performance as he sings for the congregation. He waves at me, and I wave back. Proud of this child I mentor, I try to offer him praise when we meet up again after his performance, but my words fall on deaf ears. His heart is filled with worry about his new family, this new chapter of life he is about to embark upon.
“Why are they not here? They are supposed to pick me up.”
I follow his foster family to the new home with Jeff in tow. We talk about his church performance and his new family; Jeff is excited about his new room. I ask Jeff what he will miss about his foster family; he mentions the dog. We pull up to a home and Jeff calls out “There it is!” He races to the door, and his new Mom answers. There are many awkward smiles and handshakes. I accept a tour of the house.
I share my number with the new mom and say my goodbyes to Jeff, telling him I will see him next Sunday.
‘You mean this Sunday, right, Ben?,” he asks anxiously.
We wave goodbye and, I head to my own home. I think about Jeff on the way and picture the face he made when he realized that his other families were not coming to see him sing. I can only imagine the excitement he felt at performing for them and the disappointment when they did not arrive.
“I will see you next week” I whisper to myself.
Jeff has a lack of healthy male role models in his life. He has lost most of his family, including his biological parents and other family members, to court involvement and death. Jeff has experienced numerous traumas in his short life, which is reflected in his hyper-vigilance and constant need for reassurance. I am the protective factor standing between him and his statistical future of early parenthood, substance abuse, and becoming a high school dropout. Trauma has a way of wearing down even the most resilient. I want to help Jeff become the person he wants to be in life by being one of his stable supports. Our play and positive experiences inch Jeff towards that goal. Mentoring a child is a rewarding and positive way to combat the trauma many children experience in the Eastern Panhandle. My mentoring is possible through an organization called WE CAN.
WE CAN is a mentoring program within the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, located at 653 Winchester Ave, Martinsburg, WV. WE CAN programs are available all over the state with offices in Charleston, Huntington, Lewisburg, Logan, Martinsburg, Parkersburg, and Princeton. The required training is provided for those who wish to become a WE CAN mentor. Potential mentors should also expect to undergo a background check.
The WE CAN program hosts events that both mentor and mentee can attend together. A reasonable monetary reimbursement is available for other activities, something I rarely take advantage of. Mentors agree to spend at least two hours per week with their mentee, and a monthly log is required to ensure that the mentor is providing adequate positive time and activities. Some activities I enjoy with Jeff are geocaching, playing basketball and checking out the parks in Berkeley County. Sometimes we stay at his current house and work on homework, which is certainly not Jeff’s favorite mentoring activity. I take photos of our time together and plan on creating a photo album depicting our year.
Not all children in need of mentors are in foster care and adoption services. Children with incarcerated parents, histories of trauma, school issues and many other “at-risk” situations can qualify for mentoring services. College aged individuals and men are in high demand to serve as mentors for area youth. Mentors for WE CAN are required to commit to a minimum of one year. Some days I tell myself this is my only year. Others times I remember those four empty seats, and I believe I just may be in this for the long haul.
Consider mentoring a child today. An application to become a mentor is available on the WE CAN website. Do you work with children at your job or agency? There is also a referral form available on the WE CAN website. Do you mentor? Share your experiences and stories with us.
(Photos by Nicholas Trietsch)
**names changed in this article for confidentiality