I met LC, my latest Seedling Mentee, last year when she was a kindergarten student at a school not too far from where I live. Her teacher was kind, sweet, and a redhead like me, and I think that may have eased my way in starting this new mentoring relationship.
Seedling Mentoring is for children who deal with the trauma of having an incarcerated parent, and although the parent may come out of prison, Seedling does not end the mentoring relationship.
You see, they know that the trauma has already occurred and that a parent’s reentry into the child’s life can often be one more change they must deal with, emotionally and academically.
When I met LC, we immediately talked about my father and I disclosed that he went to prison. Seedling requires that Mentees are aware that their Mentors know about their situation and that there is no need to hide or be ashamed.
She was not able to express much about her experience and feelings yet but she could draw them. In the beginning, she drew many pictures, even a few that were a bit disturbing, but I schooled my reactions and encouraged her to keep drawing how she felt so that those things were no longer just in her head.
As time went by, she drew those images less and she started drawing us together. We had to be holding hands.
One day, she was in the mood to draw and I suggested that we draw each other. She lit up like a little candle and said, “Yes!”
I drew a beautiful little girl with multiple pigtails and chocolate-colored skin and great big brown eyes with long lashes. She was smiling and the sun was shining behind her. LC loved it and she showed me what she was drawing.
It was me in crayon colors of orange and green, with a super cape and a big crown that she claimed, “needed more bling!” before it was done. It was utterly adorable and it is something I will treasure forever. You really never know how a child sees you until they draw a picture!
LC had days of being very quiet and sad (although fewer of those as time has gone on and she is now a first grader) and some days when she is so full of energy, enthusiasm, and ideas that it is like holding a live wire. I read to her while she picks at her lunch (she is not a big eater), then we play a game (usually with some math or matching skills) and then we color or draw together. We talk about whatever she wants to, and I gently reinforce manners and the things I know she is learning in class.
At the beginning of our relationship, I was careful to let her set the pace when it came to physical affection. Seedling trains and continues to educate us during our mentoring journey and one valuable lesson that I never would have thought of was this: Children of trauma feel more comfortable when you sit next to them, rather than across from them. Sustained eye contact with a new person can be stressful and too intimate for these kids and so you step back (or to the side) and let them come forward as they feel comfortable. It took me nearly half a school year to get a hug! (Worth it!)
This year, as the lunches added up, I realized that LC was angling her body toward me when I read to her and gradually, she leaned sideways enough to almost be resting her upper body in my lap as I sat next to her, reading aloud. This was a great sign and so I started pointing at words and letting her finish the sentence if she could. Hugs come more frequently now as I say goodbye, and we hold hands as we walk to lunch. She tells her teacher she misses me when it is not our day to be together.
I use my training; staying open and responsive on the days when LC is processing something or is simply in a bad mood. Sometimes my presence is enough to turn her frown upside down, but some days we need to “talk it out” as much as she will initiate and allow.
I am not there to teach, fix, or discipline LC. I am just there to listen and love, to be consistent in my presence and praise, and to be one person in her life whose only priority during the time we are together is to focus on her. All kids need it, and some are lucky enough to find it in their family or friends, but for the others, thanks to Seedling and other mentoring programs for children…there are Mentors like me.