Endeavoring in Excellence

By: Russell White, AmeriCorps VISTA Member with the Iowa Mentoring Partnership

Mentoring Affects Youth (M.A.Y. Mentoring) is a community-based mentoring program operating in the Shenandoah Community School District (SCSD), which started in 2000 with seed money from Ed May Jr. in honor of his parents. Over the past 19 years, Kim Leininger and M.A.Y. Mentoring have worked hard to ensure that all of their matches are set up to succeed and thrive. The motto of SCSD is “Excellence in Every Endeavor,” which also guides M.A.Y. Mentoring in its endeavors to create mentoring relationships that have strong bonds between mentors and mentees that result in lasting positive impacts for their youth. Back in April one of M.A.Y. Mentoring mentors, Jennifer (Jenny) Burkhiser received an Excellence in Mentoring Award for her tremendous work and dedication to the program for nearly 16 years! Jenny and her current mentees, Rafael and Jacquelyn (Jackie), have a relationship which perfectly embodies the school district’s motto of “Excellence in Every Endeavor.”

Jenny started mentoring in 2003 when she was attending Iowa Western Community College as a student. As a young adult, Jenny remembers thinking to herself that “now I can make all of my own decisions.” At that point in her life, she made the decision to be a positive influence in her community. That is when she decided to sign up to be a part of the M.A.Y. Mentoring program. Jenny was 21 at the time and started mentoring her first mentee – a 9-year old girl named Kayla, who Jenny mentored until she graduated Shenandoah High School. Jenny made an incredibly close bond with Kayla, and today the two of them remain in contact with each other. Today, Kayla is happily married and running a successful business with her husband. Jenny thinks it “is amazing to see how much she has grown and how she is giving back to the community. I would not be surprised if she was also mentoring kids in her life.”

Following the end of her match with Kayla, Jenny immediately made the decision to continue mentoring other kids in the program. After Kayla graduated in 2012, she was matched with a brother and sister who were 9 and 8-years old at the time – Rafael and Jackie. Jenny mentored the two siblings as a pair, since the two of them a very close with one another. Rafael and Jackie have a Hispanic ethnic background and their parents both emigrated from Mexico. Fortunately, Jenny speaks Spanish because growing up her parents spoke Spanish and were exchange students during their times in college. Due to their experience with the Spanish language and culture, they passed that knowledge down to Jenny, as well. Jenny’s family has always had a connection to the Spanish-speaking community in Shenandoah. So, naturally, Jenny jumped at the opportunity to mentor Rafael and Jackie after she had met them.

Though, in a weird twist of fate, this isn’t the first time Jenny and her mentees’ families have crossed paths. Jenny’s mother has worked as an interpreter in the community, and she in fact helped deliver Jackie into the world since she helped Jackie’s mom with her delivery. Also, while working her job at KYFR Family Radio, the kids came through the radio station for a field trip and Jenny gave Rafael and Jackie a mock interview, before the three of them were even matched with M.A.Y. Mentoring. Jenny sometimes reflect on the amazing coincidence of all of that and how full circle all of their lives have gone.

The involvement in the Spanish speaking community and having crossed paths with each other in their lives before has helped to create a strong bond between Jenny, Rafael, and Jackie. In the way that all three of them described it, they all feel a kind of communal and familial bond with one another. It is also not just Jenny, but her husband has also made a connection with the kids since they will bring them along on family outings on occasion. They are just all so close and familial with each other. Jenny herself said that, “they know that our family is looking out for them. We may have different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but they know that we will always be here for them.” Rafael and Jackie also love helping to take care of Jenny’s newborn baby, Conde; partly also because they have embraced being an aunt and uncle to their own niece, Jaylen. They all enjoy doing stuff together as a family.

 For everyone involved, they all feel like extended family to one another. Jackie and Rafael were both so happy and excited to hear the news that Jenny was pregnant with Conde. Jackie went as far to say that one of her favorite memories was when Jenny told her and Rafael during a M.A.Y. Mentoring event that she was pregnant! For Rafael, his favorite memory was the first time he held Conde – it was also his first time holding a newborn infant. But their relationship is so strong, that even despite having a newborn infant to care for, both Jackie and Rafael strongly admire that Jenny makes a strong effort to still mentor and spend time with the two of them.

Feeling like a family with each other has led to many beautiful moments. For both Jackie and Rafael, Jenny taught the two of them the importance in never giving up on your goals and to always persevere. Or, the important life lesson to never stay quiet and complacent if you believe something is wrong – “if you see or hear something bad happening, then don’t just do nothing; do something.”  Jenny recalled one of those special moments which stick out to her. It was during a trip to the local zoo in their area and Jenny, her husband, Rafael and Jackie all went on a skyfari lift around the zoon. Neither of the kids knew prior to getting on that Jenny’s husband has a bit of anxiety and fear when it comes to heights. While on the sky safari, Jackie could tell that Jenny’s husband was struggling and having some anxiety. When it became clearer that he was uncomfortable, Jenny was kind and supportive, and soon they were able to get to a point where he was able to exit the skyfari safely. He walked the rest of the way back and Jenny was supportive. On the trip back, Jackie opened up with Jenny and talked to her about some things going on in her life that involved a lot of change and perhaps fear.

This truly touched Jenny because she has always aimed to be the kind of mentor that can gain the trust of her mentees so that they are willing to open up with her about their deep fears and about what is troubling them in their lives. Jenny believes that the example she set for Jackie when it came to providing comfort and supporting her husband through his anxiety and fear demonstrated to Jackie that everyone has personal fears and anxieties and that it is okay to talk about them and be open about them. “Everything doesn’t always have to be in a certain order. We are going to be a family and support one another whatever happens.” Having Jenny and her husband provide a positive example on how to be vulnerable with one another and support one another was a life lesson that neither of them had planned on giving Jackie that day, but it is one that not only stuck with her but also led to her opening up to Jenny and growing a deeper trust and bond.

That has always been the goal for Jenny, and she truly feels that Rafael, Jackie, and herself have benefitted immensely from the open relationship that they’ve achieved through mentoring. Jenny is appreciative for being a part of their lives and being a major part in their worlds. The enrichment in sharing their experiences and perceptions with each other is invaluable. “They have their own experiences and perceptions with their families, which they bring to my life. But in return, I also get to share with them the experiences and perceptions of my family.” Jackie and Rafael both share in Jenny’s appreciation for being in each other’s lives.  Jackie is grateful that Jenny “always helped us, and I am happy that she allows us into her life and be with her family.” Rafael can trust that he “can talk to her about anything and she will listen to me and help me through any situation.

In addition to enjoying the personal enrichment in sharing their experiences with each other, they also explore one another’s cultural differences and learn to celebrate those difference. “Getting to learn different cultures and perspectives really gives them a sense that people who are different are also trustworthy. Differences are something that can be celebrated and enjoyed, and that they help to make you unique.”  Jenny learns so much from them, and they in return learn from Jenny as well; all while having fun and growing closer as a kind of family.

It is no wonder that Jenny was able to help foster this kind of bond with Rafael and Jackie, because her secret and advice to other mentors is simple: “unconditional love and acceptance.” That is truly all it takes. “Not putting any strings attached; not being judgmental – that is not conducive to building trust.” If you want to build trust among you and your mentees then you need to be good at “listening, loving, and giving yourself to them; giving your time; give your life. Even if it is just a little bit of time, it means so much, because not everyone is willing to do it.” That would be her advice on how to build a strong bond with your mentees and create a relationship which will last for years to come. There isn’t much else to it, according to her.

But you also must be willing to invest in a life. You have to ask yourself “What really matters? Who’s life might go a better way if I invest a little time into it?” According to Jenny, being able to invest in a life and make a profound difference in that life, as well, is a rare opportunity which only presents itself for a brief window in that young person life. You have to be both committed and willing to invest that time into that young person so that you can make a difference for them.

Do you think you’re up for it? Do you think you’re willing to give your unconditional love and acceptance to a child? Jenny has been endeavoring in excellence for nearly 16 years by making a positive difference in the lives of her mentees and her community. You too can become a mentor and endeavor in excellence. Start making a positive difference in your community by being a mentor for Iowa’s youth!

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