“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”
The two of us stared at the large pile of papers as she dumped them out of her writing folder and on to the table. I was volunteering as a writing mentor to a teen, and glancing through her work it became apparent she had more writing skills than I did.
We decided to meet at the Main Library in Salt Lake City because it was a central location and the metal and glass building inspires creativity. The aroma of bitter coffee drifted out of the coffee shop three floors below us and greeted us at our table next to the five-story atrium. I hoped my choice of location would make me seem cooler than I really was.
I signed up to volunteer in a program I learned about, Salt Lake Teens Write, during my three-month internship at the SLCC Community Writing Center the previous summer. Salt Lake Teens Write pairs under represented teens who want assistance with their writing with adult mentors who use writing in his or her profession. The mentor and mentee meet for an hour once a week for the duration of the school year, attend two celebrations, two writing workshops, and contribute to an annual anthology. The teens and mentors work on academic and creative writing as well as college scholarship essays. The program is awesome and the idea of mentoring a teen made me smile.
I didn’t know where I would fit the time in to my already maxed out schedule. As a thirty-something single mom going to the University of Utah full time and working three part time jobs, I focused most of my energy on my boys, studying and paying the bills. Admittedly, my motivation was not entirely altruistic; I would have thrived in the program as a teenager, and a part of me hoped to find peace with the mistakes I had made as a teenager through mentoring.
I quickly found out the teen I mentored faced challenges completely different from my own at her age. I felt thrown and unprepared. High school challenged me academically and I dropped out in tenth grade. She was smart and wrote for the school paper. Her voice was strong and her opinions were valid. She excelled academically and received positive feedback and interest from her teachers. She planned to attend college. In fact, I think she had more confidence in her abilities as a writer than I had in mine. I tried my best to coach her in any way I could, but I am pretty sure I ended up learning more about writing from her than she learned from me.
I went into mentoring thinking I understood what my mentee needed, and her teenage angst would be the same as my own had been. I thought by just showing up to volunteer I would mysteriously find answers to all my and my mentee’s problems. In the end, I realized it didn’t work that way. I learned how essential it is to ask questions and listen to her response to understand how I could be of assistance—even if that simply meant writing from a poetry prompt for an hour.
All too often we assume we know the services people are in need of and get frustrated when what we do offer is not met with gratitude. However, asking questions and listening closely to the answers can open us to the true meaning of providing service; establishing a need and connecting the individual with the resources to meet those needs.
Unfortunately, I did not keep in contact with my mentee after the year was over, but I have no doubt she went on to excel in any area she pursued. While this experience was nothing like I imagined it would be, it did help to form my academic focus and work in community literacy and writing and rhetoric studies for the next several years, and guide me to find the peace and healing I was searching for through working in service.