By: Russell White, AmeriCorps VISTA Member

Co-authored: Amanda Martin, Assistant Director of Community Engaged Learning at Drake University

Russell White is a Drake Alumnus who graduated from Drake University in May of 2018 with two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Politics and International Relations. He currently serves as an AmeriCorps VISTA member with the Iowa Mentoring Partnership (IMP) at Volunteer Iowa. His work is related to capacity building and sustainability for mentoring programs, and engaging in outreach via social media, email and phone. He is tasked with helping give technical assistance to mentoring programs and helping them create the structure their program needs to be successful in serving Iowa’s youth. Often,he gets the pleasure of listening to personal stories from mentors, mentees and parents/guardians about the amazing impact mentoring has on their lives. Nothing is more fulfilling for him than knowing that he is helping to improve the lives of children across an entire state; and knowing that he is making a difference in people’s lives. But, he didn’t end up at the IMP randomly; it was quite deliberate. For you see, he is passionate about youth development and mentoring. Why? Well, he is also a mentor. He mentors a young boy named Aiden who attends Monroe Elementary School, which is not that far from Drake University’s campus. And instead of him reciting the stories of others for this month, we here at IMP thought he ought to share his story. 

He began mentoring Aiden in the fall semester of 2017 of his senior year at Drake. At the time, Kerry King of Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) put together a new service opportunity between Drake FSL and Monroe Elementary’s afterschool program. When he first heard of this opportunity he was excited by it, because he enjoys volunteering with kids. The Spring before, a group of FSL students attended Monroe Elementary for several hours and spent time with the kids. They read them books, talked with them and even played a few games with them. Needless to say, it was perhaps one of the best ways to volunteer. So, upon hearing about this new opportunity to spend time at Monroe Elementary once a week for an hour with their afterschool program it seemed like a no-brainer! A handful of other Drake students and him signed on to be volunteers in the fall of 2017.

Upon his first visit to Monroe he was taken outside with the kids to the playground. That is when he met Yolanda Shields, the director of the afterschool program, and, as he would learn, a terrific individual to be around. After meeting her and explaining he was a Drake student there to volunteer, she quickly referred him to a student of hers that was writing a book and needed help. Since he was a college student, both her and the student thought he could offer some helpful advice and guidance. That student was Aiden. Their first day together Aiden and him sat at the base of the jungle gym and spent the entire time working on his story. At first, this might seem like a fun activity that he and Russell did together on their first day. However, prior to sitting down with Aiden, Russell was informed that Aiden is diagnosed with ADHD. So, sitting down for a long period of time and focusing on one particular thing doesn’t necessarily come naturally to him. At the same time, he sometimes gets so hyperactive that he bounces off the walls in his classroom and causes both disruption and trouble. Sitting down with Aiden, it became clear to him that he was not at all a bad kid. He is similar to most kids around his age: has a hard time with sharing, loves to play video games, has a silly sense of humor and just loves to play around. He and Russell hit it off on his first visit to Monroe and he informally became his mentor.

Russell would go back to see Aiden most weeks; he did his best to try every week, but sometimes he could only do every other week. But every time he would walk through the door and he saw him, a big smile would grow on Aiden's face. Those moments always felt rewarding. He and Russell would almost do the same thing whenever he came to visit. They would go out into the hallway, sit down on the floor, pull out Russell's phone and begin to watch video game clips on YouTube. At the time, Aiden’s video game obsession was a 2D dungeon/adventure scroller called Terraria. Luckily, Russell knew of the game prior to Aiden showing him and that excited him that Russell knew what he was talking about. He and Russell began to bond over video games and they would show each other videos and just watch them every time Russell visited. But, he would also get him to play some board games with him, like Candyland, Battleship and even Chess!

At the same time though, he would talk with Aiden about how things are at home. How school and class was going. Just anything that was going on in his life, and he would open up more and more to Russell with every visit. Russell would also try to work with him on how he interacts with other students; teaching him to be more kind and more willing to share with his classmates. By the end of Russell's senior year he could already see a difference in his behavior. To see and witness the change in him was such a rewarding feeling for Russell. But, Russell's time with Aiden also had an affect on him. It made Russell more responsible and considerate of others. Whenever you’re a mentor, you have to be reliable and consistent with your mentee. That consistency and reliability translated to other aspects of his life. It also just made him happier. Being around Aiden and simply playing games, watching video games and hanging out had a real positive impact on Russell's mental health. It also inspired him to keep mentoring and to help spread the culture of mentoring. Because of his time with Aiden, he become passionate about the mentoring field which is a considerable reason for why he chose to serve with the Iowa Mentoring Partnership. He still mentors Aiden to this day. In fact, he sees him every Friday afternoon after he gets off work.

People underestimate the power and impact of mentoring. The impact of a mentoring relationship doesn’t just affect the mentee, but it affects the mentor and the parents/guardians too! In a mentoring relationship, you are helping your mentee realize THEIR potential, while the mentee is helping you realize YOUR OWN potential and worth as well. You build each other up and it is a beautiful dynamic to be a part of. You become a friend, a big brother/sister, a role model. You’re just there for them. It is as simple as that. Someone they can count on and know that no matter what, they (you) will be there. It is one of the most rewarding feelings you could ever receive in life. All the while, you only spend one hour a week with the mentee. That is only four hours a month. Think about all of the hours you spend in a month doing practically nothing. 

So, think about this: What will you do with your four hours a month? You too can have a positive impact on a young person’s life and give them the support that they need. Click here to find out more on how you too can become a mentor! 

*Written in conjunction with the Office of Community Engaged Learning at Drake University for a blog post on their website promoting a new mentoring partnership program between Monroe Elementary School and Drake University.