Like the proverbial expression, “association brings on assimilation,” youth are greatly influenced by the adults around them. From a young age, my parents sacrificed much to expose me to a variety of learning experiences and professionals who ultimately shaped my personal and professional character. My first example of visionary leadership was George S. Wilson, Sr., pastor of the small Atlanta church which my family attended.

Fondly addressed as “Brother Wilson,” he had the uncanny ability to discern talent and acumen, and I was fortunate that he detected various forms of leadership gifts within me. His growing church had no music director and could not afford to employ one. So, every Friday evening, Brother Wilson would quietly sit in the rehearsal of one of Atlanta’s best organists, Dr. Wendell P. Whalum, Minister of Music, Allen Temple A.M.E. Church. At the end of every rehearsal, Brother Wilson, who was not a musician, would ask Dr. Whalum about his techniques and repertoire. On Saturday mornings, with my parents’ permission, I would practice on my church’s new Baldwin organ, receiving instruction from Brother Wilson, who shared what he had learned from Dr. Whalum the night before.

In high school, I became youth director and director of music at Brother Wilson’s church. I successfully competed in several keyboard competitions and decided to attend Morehouse College as a music student. When I was auditioning, the professor asked, “How did you learn your pedal work?” I responded, “From my pastor.” The professor asked sundry questions such as: “Who is your pastor?”  “Is he an organist?” I replied, “No, in fact, I have never heard him play.”  The professor was astonished by the story of how I learned the organ, and I realized that Dr. Whalum, via Brother Wilson, had served indirectly as my teacher and mentor. I eventually met Dr. Whalum while in college and told him about my unusual musical mentorship. “Man, I’ve been your teacher all these years,” he told me, laughing, as he remembered that unassuming pastor and the conversations they had about music many years before.

It takes a community to transform one life, but it takes only one person to start the process. Through the actions of one person, the many evolving layers of mentoring are put into motion. Brother Wilson sacrificed his time and energy to empower me, even though music was not his forte.  Through him, Dr. Whalum became involved. I believe that my graduating with honors – and path to leadership – can be traced back to them both.

At its core, mentoring is about caring enough to serve and be present. As we begin another school year, we need more men and women to be present with youth and to discern their interests and passion to learn. Regardless of profession or social/economic status, every adult has something to offer. Mentoring, in part, is reaffirming that you are a citizen of the world with both stories to tell and a few lessons learned.  Adults must take seriously their role as mentors for the next generation. Open your eyes and see the child already looking at you. Exhale and take some time to listen. Seek neither to entertain nor to entice, but simply engage and connect with the youth’s yearning to learn, grow, and thrive.

The benefits of mentoring are many. A 2013 study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that when compared to their non-mentored peers, mentored youth enjoy fewer depressive symptoms, greater acceptance by their peers, more positive beliefs about their ability to succeed in school, and better grades. The Handbook of Youth Mentoring, published by the SAGE Program on Applied Development Science in 2014, concluded that effective mentoring provides youth with essential aspects of healthy development, including competence, confidence, connection, character, caring, and contribution to self and community. The benefits of mentorship extend beyond the mentee as well. Serving as a mentor forces us to examine our own character and discover our own purpose in life. It is not good for us to remain in our own zones of comfort, knowledge, or experience. If we do not engage in helping others, we starve our own spirit from developing more fully.

The McGaw YMCA believes that “strengthening community life” is an imperative for every citizen of Evanston. Mentoring is one significant way to strengthen community. There are so many ways to mentor, and so many youth who desperately need a positive adult role model. At the McGaw YMCA, we pair children and young people with mentors through programs such as Project SOAR and Y Achievers. To this end, our staff and volunteers strive to represent our core values – caring, respect, honesty, and responsibility – so that the hundreds of young people in our programs learn to emulate these values,

Anyone who interacts with youth has the opportunity to help shape the life of a young person. I urge everyone to be a mentor. It is one of the simplest ways to make a real difference. Consider mentoring.