November 7, 2015
Scared straight. Me, not the five 16-year-old girls I would be career mentoring as part of a volunteer experience at a juvenile facility.
Cell phones and purses were not permitted. Um…what did I get myself into? When I pulled up and parked, stressed about leaving my purse and phone in the car and just a little bit anxious, I realized the receptionist would have to unlock the doors to let me in.
The youth group worker who was leading the interviews asked me if I had ever been to this facility before. Not only had I never been there, but I’d never set foot in a place that I couldn’t leave when I wanted to. Like many of you, I couldn’t fathom what that must even be like.
For ten minutes I chatted with her about meeting the girls. They had made some bad choices that landed them where they were, she said; easy enough to do at that age with a combination of little family stability, no afterschool structure, and plenty of old-fashioned peer pressure.
On the Inside
Then the girls filed into the tight conference room. Everything was beige, bland, and just a bit sad—from bankers’ boxes full of paperwork to cracks splintering up the walls. Everyone wore neutral-colored, elastic-waist pajama bottoms with bright pink T-shirts—my favorite color and the only counterpoint to the otherwise drab surroundings. On their feet: socks and spa slippers, though this was surely no spa.
The worker cheerily told the group that they were going to spend some time getting to know me and my career path and then start the mock interviews. She gave me an idea of what the girls were interested in before we chatted off to the side — well within earshot of the girls.
What immediately struck me was how young they looked, much younger than 16, with eager faces, absent any trace of make-up to prematurely age them into adults, hair in a natural state and, most striking of all, no phones—none of the armor teens use to put between themselves and their world, as they negotiate where they belong in it. They were nervous, too, and told me so, a few barely able to make eye contact, soft spoken and shy, another stunning contrast to other teen girls I had met, whose confidence entered the room five minutes before they did.
Their career aspirations were not modest, which surprised me. These girls wanted to be lawyers, therapists, veterinarians, nurses, childcare workers: professions that required many years of extra school, passion, and dedication. Some based their ambition on personal experiences; others already knew, at 16, that these professions offered a better life.
One Lock at a Time
I didn’t know what transgressions had put them in this place, but a few mentioned they only had a day or two left. I asked basic interview questions: tell me about yourself, tell me how someone might describe you, what are your strengths, etc. They were open to feedback and we talked about what they did well: firm handshakes, smiles, good eye contact after they got a bit more comfortable, natural curiosity, and a remarkable amount of passion for what they wanted to do.
We talked about what they might work on, which included talking about themselves and phrasing some answers in a more positive way. Their innocence and goodness of heart were clearly intact; it was apparent in their answers as they related how much they enjoyed caring for siblings and cousins or how they tried to be helpful and cooperative in other jobs they’d held.
I don’t know if an hour of mentoring truly helped these girls, although I like to think it did. One girl very formally thanked me for coming and for my time. She was genuine and sweet, without any detectable sarcasm which felt like victory.
Prior to the visit I was guilty of making some uninformed assumptions. In retrospect, that was just foolish. I know I was uncomfortable seeing a slice of life I’ve not experienced much, and I think that was a natural reaction. I would absolutely volunteer again, and I hope I’ll be less predisposed to judge next time. I know I left humbled, hopeful, and grateful to share some time with these girls. I had nothing to fear and just as much to gain as they did.
By Michele Predko
Get involved. Sign up to volunteer! Face fears, and break assumptions.
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