By Kay Wolfkill

April is Autism Awareness Month. Youth Experiencing Success has a Mentor, a special education teacher that goes above and beyond for her mentees on the autism spectrum. Lisa Gray got involved with YES in 2016 when one of her students moved to a different school after being in her classroom for two years. Lisa wasn't ready to be done showing him how to be successful in life. She wanted to become his mentor. The rest is history.

Lisa now has two mentees: Alex and Kami. She asked Peggy Craig, the mentoring program coordinator at YES to be matched with Alex, one of the first students in her special education classroom. A little over a year later she was also matched with Kami, who Lisa says has an adorable, silly side and is always a ray of sunshine. It is clear that the three have a strong connection.

Alex's favorite activity to do with the trio is getting French fries from McDonalds and making funny faces using Snapchat filters. Kami loves that they go bowling, and also enjoys getting treats from Burger King and McDonalds. Lisa has taught them how to communicate with the workers at restaurants and place their order. Alex even has a picture book guide that he uses to communicate with workers to tell them what he would like. While this may seem like a simple task, Lisa is proud of their accomplishments because her mentees did not have that kind of independence prior to their mentoring relationship. She believes it is important to make sure her mentees receive this kind of guidance and is happy to help the kids and their family with teaching them these basic skills. "There are kids out there that need attention and help, that isn't from family," she says. The next step is teaching Alex and Kami how to pay for their meals.

The group also goes to movies and plays at the Wilson Performing Arts Center together. Kami says one important skill she learned from Lisa was how to be quiet at the Nutcracker play. She sat through the entire play, which is a great achievement for her. She loved it very much, and was at times both scared and excited throughout the play. That was one of her favorite memories with Ms. Gray, she told us. For Lisa, it was special to her because Kami felt safe enough to stay with her through the entire time.

Another special experience Lisa has had since being a mentor was bringing Alex with to decorate a float her church was entering in a parade. She hadn't been a mentor for long, so she was a little nervous at first. "They got to work on it and everyone at church who was decorating welcomed Alex to the event with open arms and made sure he stayed safe. It was amazing because he got to ride on the float and smile and wave at people as they rode by. It was special moment for me because I was able to bring her life of mentoring and special education to people I knew." Lisa has also taught Kami how to say a prayer before eating.

Lisa is very passionate about providing opportunities for her students. She has two daughters who have also developed a relationship with her mentees. Lisa says that mentoring has become a family event. "It really becomes a family thing when you are devoted, which makes it even better," she shared. It gives her children the insight to how her day is as a special educator, and gives them the same passion she has for spending time with Alex and Kami. It also provides quality learning time for her mentees to grow. Kami is often with her parents because not many family members can take care of her. Lisa enjoys being a resource for Kami to get out of the house so her parents can have a break. Kami learns to be comfortable away from her parents and explore new relationships and experiences this way.

Youth Experiencing Success feels that it is important for ALL children to have the opportunity to have a Mentor and experience having an extra caring adult in their life; and Lisa Gray is a wonderful example of that. She shared with us that being a mentor has been the most rewarding experience of her life. Thank you for going above and beyond!

Are you willing to go above and beyond to be a consistent mentor to a youth in need? Sign up to become a mentor today.