Gov. Sam Brownback’s new mentoring program for welfare recipients, while well intentioned, leaves me wondering whether he truly understands what “mentoring” means.
How to create a true “mentor” relationship isn’t easy. Understanding social economic differences, personal values and the potential effect of trauma (as many of these families have endured) isn’t easy for anyone to grasp. Most importantly, there has to be mutual respect. Helping someone who is trying to get it right isn’t easy. They aren’t prison inmates, they’re human beings.
I have mentored a young, African American mom of four children for more than three years now. I met Kahtea Bobo through Operation Breakthrough, a wonderful nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families.
I’m a middle-aged, white professional woman who has mentored college students, employees and others in business. Given that experience, mentoring Kahtea should be a breeze, right? Wrong.
We didn’t have a plan. We made it up as we went. She’s smart and motivated. She wanted out of the cycle of domestic abuse, nomadic living (as many families have to constantly move for financial and security reasons) and worrying about her kids. She earned more than 90 hours of undergraduate credit at the University of Missouri-Kansas City before one of the domestic cycles caught up with her, leaving her homeless with two toddlers in tow.
She has opened my eyes to the institutional roadblocks we put in front of families that are trying to get it right and improve their situations. Kahtea’s ex-husband left her with a $5,000 utility bill.
She works a full-time, hourly job. How is she to take off work (losing precious income) to go to the utility office to try to negotiate a losing situation?
We talk all the time about living an authentic life and doing the right thing. After finally getting off public assistance, she passed a bad check to a store. Her choice was to pass a bad check or not feed her family.
A letter from the Jackson County prosecutor’s office followed, demanding restitution. When you’re living from barely a paycheck to a paycheck, paying off this debt was impossible. But we found a way to get it done.
She’s taught me how families have to take short cuts just to survive, and when she has made a step forward, she finds herself taking two steps back.
After living in a rat-infested, slumlord house in the inner city, we knew she needed to move after her house was broken into by a gang on Christmas day. We searched to get her to a better neighborhood. Her credit report didn’t do her any favors, so we negotiated with a generous landlord to give her a chance. He did.
Now her dream is to open an after hours/emergency day care in the inner city for families who know they are one paycheck away from losing a job when a child is sick. She’s an advocate for her community and speaks publicly about her story.
We’ve treated each other with respect and with love. She’s my “shero.” My hope is that this mentoring program can make a difference for a family that wants to do the right thing.
Mentoring isn’t about giving someone a handout or a hand up. It’s complex. It isn’t easy. But for us, it’s a journey we would do all over again.
Kristin Wing of Leawood is a marketing professional and also consults with fraternities and sororities nationwide.