by Sarah Wilkinson

From August ‘17 to August ‘18, I served as the AmeriCorps VISTA Mentoring Program Coordinator for STORY, a small nonprofit in Hopewell, VA that serves youth in public housing communities. My task for the year was to develop a youth mentoring program and implement a program launch—a tall order for someone who was fresh out of college, had never been part of a formal mentoring program, and had never done program development.

Lesson One: Ride the Wave, Or Get Thrown Off the Bow (Trust the Process, Not the Outcome)

My first few weeks of service can be summed up with one word: overwhelming. I wasn’t familiar with the community, with mentoring best practices, or with working in such a small nonprofit environment (it was just me and my Executive Director). My ED and I had yet to figure out how to effectively communicate with each other, and I felt absolutely lost. There was no handbook laying around that could tell me all that I needed to know. What was I supposed to do first? How was I going to develop and launch a new program in such a short amount of time?

As someone who likes to have as much information as possible before diving into a task, I realized quickly that I would have to adapt a new strategy: learning as I went. This meant that, sometimes, I would be working in the dark unsure of where I was going. Non-profits, especially when they’re recently-established, are like ships out at sea in the middle of a storm: the state of semi-chaos is constant and you can either learn to ride the wave, or you can be thrown off the bow.

I had to trust the process, not the outcome. In other words, I had to trust that I would find where I needed to go and let that be my guide as I felt my way through the fog. And so, I set to work learning as much as I could about program development, mentoring, and my new community.

Lesson Two: Don’t Count Your Whales Before They Sing

After stumbling around in the fog for many months, enduring moments of boom where I saw the lighthouse in the distance and moments of bust, when I lost sight of the light calling me to shore, I had finally developed a mentoring program that was ready to be tested. At exactly the moment where I felt the weight lifting ever-so slightly off my chest, all the plans I’d built for the upcoming launch of the newly-dubbed STORY Mentoring Program crumbled around me.

I’d been counting on the same volunteers who’d volunteered in the past as group mentors to return, despite the fact that everything about the program had changed (it was one-on-one mentoring now, for starters). The result was that I received a call one day from the volunteers, politely letting me know that none would be returning. In other words, I’d counted my whales before they sang. By then, I was one month out from the program’s target launch date. I was at a complete loss. The fog crept in once more, and I felt so discouraged that I wondered if it was even possible for the program to go on.

Lesson Three: Keep Your Eyes On the Skies, and You’ll Find the Lighthouse

Out of the blue, shortly after I received the devastating news, my ED forwarded me the name of a woman from a local church who was interested in partnering for a community project. I was tentative to get my hopes up, but I kept my eyes on the horizon and gave her a call. She gave me all I needed: the opportunity to try and find a new way forward.

The date for the program launch came and went as this new partnership with Friendship Baptist Church slowly developed. My eyes were locked on this new lighthouse I’d spotted off in the distance, which promised to pull me into shore. But I also knew that at any moment, a storm could materialize and knock me off course again. I remained patient and the seas, consequently, remained calm too. I accepted the reality that I wouldn’t know what was going to be the outcome until the outcome arrived.

Lesson Four: Do What You Are Afraid To Do

The biggest obstacle floating in my way now was finding a way to spread my recruitment message to the good folks at Friendship Baptist Church. On a cold Wednesday night, I found myself in the church’s basement, staring into a small crowd of unfamiliar faces. A reluctant public speaker, I froze up, my scripted pitch disappearing from my mind as my words stuttered out incoherently to fill the silence. I took a deep breath and started again. The following Sunday, I was standing on the stage in the church’s chapel, speaking in front of 60+ new faces, escalating my terror. I hadn’t slept at all the night before, in anticipation of all that could go wrong.

When I stepped off the stage, my call to action still echoing off the walls, I was flush with relief. I had done what I was afraid to do, the only thing that could save the pilot launch of the STORY Mentoring Program. Those were two of the hardest moments in a year full of hard moments, but I had proven to myself I could do it. And the volunteer applications came pouring in.

Lesson Five: No Journey Is Perfect, and Neither Is the Destination

After six months of what felt like utter chaos, of steering the ship around one rocky outcropping just to smash directly into another, the shore came into view. When we arrived—when the program finally launched two months after it was originally supposed to—I wish I could say the challenges had been over. Two mentors quit the right before the first session, and half the mentees didn’t show up. It would prove an ongoing challenge to entice some of the youth to attend and to coordinate 15 volunteers when previously, I’d never managed any. Amazingly, all the mentors, mentees, and parents were patient with me as I worked out the program’s kinks.

I can’t say for sure what the impact of my year’s work was on the children who participated in the program. It became clear to me early in the launch that all the effort was worth it when one of the mentees—a boy of 5—peered out the window of the community center looking for his mentor’s shoes coming up the walk. And when he spotted them, he shouted, “My mentor is here! My mentor is here!” The joy on his face at seeing his mentor—my work had made that possible. The journey to get to that moment hadn’t been perfect, and the program that resulted from that journey wasn’t perfect. But it led to that moment, and to many others that were meaningful. Success, I learned, comes in all shapes, sizes, and degrees. Sometimes we just have to shift our perspective and look at our work through a different lens and a different set of expectations.

As it turns out, I learned so much more from the parts of the journey that hadn’t been easy. And because of the challenges I overcame during my first year of service, I am now able to help other VISTAs work through similar challenges as they develop and enhance mentoring programs across the state of Virginia through my role as VISTA Leader. Amazingly, I’m watching my impact ripple outward in ways I never expected or imagined were possible. In my work, I know that choppy seas may lie ahead and more fog might descend, obliterating my path forward. Bringing about change is never easy, and there will be more hard days.

That’s okay. From my experience in AmeriCorps, I know that I’m ready for them.