A longtime friend and volunteer at The Lord’s Table soup kitchen needed help, and I couldn’t say no.
Linda asked that I write a reference letter for her grandson, Kaileb, who for about 10 years has come on Saturdays with his mom and sister to help serve noontime meals to people entering the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church at 620 E. Armour Blvd.
I had taken my daughters to The Lord’s Table since they were little girls to teach them the value of giving selflessly to others. Each is an adult now, living independently as good citizens.
Kaileb is a high school senior, needing reference letters for college. I told Linda that I was happy to help but on one condition. Kaileb had to call me and make the request himself.
That took me back to a lesson in second grade. My teacher, Ms. Cannon, didn’t think I could keep up with the class. She planned to hold me back a grade. That outraged my parents — both educators — and prompted a trip by my mom to school. She spoke with Ms. Cannon, who told her that the only way she’d let me stay in her class was if I asked for it myself without parental coaching.
That was in 1962, decades before the term helicopter parents was coined. Although filled with trepidation, the next day I walked to school and let Ms. Cannon know that I wanted to stay with the class instead of being held back and that I planned to do whatever it took to get good grades.
I ask for the same kind of elementary, one-on-one courage from young people seeking letters of reference or assistance of any kind. When it comes from them directly, I know that the need is sincere and so is their commitment to take what I provide and turn it into gold for themselves.
Students who take the time to ask themselves also are rewarded with a self-confidence boost, knowing that others will hear their request and respond.
A major benefit from being able to talk with young people is that I then get to quiz them, asking simple questions such as how they spell their name. Kaileb and I have volunteered together, but that vital information had never come up.
It was never important when working together at The Lord’s Table. But for credibility’s sake, it mattered a lot on a reference letter.
I also needed to get from Kaileb, as I have from other young people, why he needed the letter, what his grade point average was, the deadline for the paperwork submission and to whom the letter should be addressed.
I’ve written hundreds of reference letters, mostly for graduates of the Kansas City Association of Black Journalists Urban Student Journalism Academy. I have been a faculty member since 1982 of the annual program. Our promise to students is to support them in college and careers with advice and reference letters for life. I continue to provide reference letters and mentor some of our former graduates dating back to the early 1980s. No professionals were there to do that for me so I need to remain accessible to do this for others.
I let the students know that I never provide multipurpose letters that they can photocopy and use whenever they need it. If a young person needs another letter for a specific purpose, that individual has to call, write or email again with a separate request.
As with Kaileb, I let the students know that I will never make anything up. I can only write what I know from the character they have shown me or the work that I have seen.
I think it is important that young people courageously stand in front of that harsh mirror and honestly confront how others truly view them. It helps them to make corrections that can serve them well in life.
For me, that started at age 7. I continue to be willing to undergo such scrutiny to learn and grow and to enable others’ success as well.