By: Dani Kessel
If you’re fortunate enough to be in a community with the SMART Girls program at the Boys and Girls Club of America, I absolutely think you should join. I was a member from my pre-teen years to the summer before College. While the first three years were more of a learning and community experience, I spent a good amount of time (almost 2 years) mentoring young teenage girls with the SMART Girls program I joined. I helped guide them through relationships, starting high school, building healthy self-esteem, and understanding issues specific to being a young woman in this world. I also provided them with resources for more serious problems than I could help with (e.g. eating disorders, mental abuse, bullying). I may have been a bit older than them with different life experiences and wisdom to offer, but I learned a lot from my time mentoring those intelligent, creative, driven, young women.
[This is just a reminder: these are all my opinions based on my observations and experiences. You might have a different perspective. That’s perfectly okay.]
Here are 5 lessons I took away from that experience:
- Given the time and opportunity, people will help each other.
The SMART Girls helped fundraise and put on events that benefitted the community. When I was first in the SMART Girls, I was a part of the planning and execution. As a mentor, a lot of that was planned by the girls I worked with. They brought up ideas, chose issues of importance to them, did the budgeting, and worked with the supplies we had. They selected the theme and decorations of every single 8th Grade Prom. They put on Deployment Day at the elementary school for kids whose parents were downrange. All of their hard work came with minimal guidance from mentors, like me, or group leaders.
- Sometimes, just sitting with a person is what they need.
As a mentor, I spent a lot of time listening, giving advice, and guiding the younger teens in the SMART Girls group. But, during this time, I also learned how meaningful it can be to just sit with someone who is struggling. Occasionally, the girls wouldn’t want the advice. They just wanted to know that someone who cared was there to exist with them. So, we’d sit on the couch together or sit at a table together. We’d be together in the moment without forcing a conversation. This lesson has lasted into my adult life.
- Teenagers want to learn how to be self-sufficient.
During my time in the SMART Girls, we did many workshops. We did microwave cooking, balancing money, navigating healthy and unhealthy relationships. All of the young women I mentored were excited to learn skills that would help them succeed in the adult world. They were eager to grasp onto anything which would allow them to be independent and capable of doing something productive by themselves. This held true throughout my whole time in the group, and it was expressed to me often as their mentor. They wanted to learn these skills.
- When a parent tells their kid that they aren’t good enough, it sticks.
This is a not-so-good observation I had. While not all the parents were mentally abusive, some of the young women I mentored struggled with low self-esteem and negative constructs about themselves that they picked up from their homes. They heard over and over that they weren’t good enough. It stuck with them. I, obviously, wasn’t prepared or equipped to handle these situations, so I’d refer them to the trained group leaders and the community resources available. Still, I’d constantly remind them that they have value as a person and are important and smart and strong. It broke my heart to see some of the girls struggling to see their worth.
- People don’t like it when others are disingenuous.
This might seem obvious to adults. Mentors and mentees aren’t always perfectly compatible, and that isn’t a reflection of a flaw in either person. Unfortunately, this wasn’t clear early into my mentoring experience. Despite my blunt and self-assured demeanor, I faltered. I focused on molding myself into what I believed they needed. I forgot what I, as a unique person with wide experiences, could offer. Luckily, one of my mentees eventually told me to cut the bullshit. She told me, “It is better to be hated for what you are than loved for a pretend version of yourself.” Her words have stuck with me and guided me since then.
I am so grateful for the time I had as a mentor with the SMART Girls. There’s no question in my mind; it helped me grow as a leader and as a person. I absorbed invaluable lessons from the young women I partnered with. My hope is that they got as much out of the experience as I did.
I hope you enjoyed this article. As always, like and share! Were you ever a mentor or mentee? What did you get out of the experience? Let us know in the comments below.