Kathaleen Mercier has been a volunteer with Boston Partners in Education for three years. This year, Kathaleen is volunteering as an academic mentor at the Burke High School – the same school she attended as a child – where she works with ESL (English as a Second Language) students through our Aim High offering. In 2016, Mercier was honored at our annual AMP Awards ceremony where she received the John C. Rennie Volunteer of the Year award.

In this guest blog, Kathaleen discusses her volunteer experience, including what inspired her to become a mentor and the moments that have left an impact on her. The following words are Kathaleen’s own:

My inspiration to become an academic mentor arises out of my belief that every child deserves the chance to succeed, and a decent educational opportunity is essential for that success. Children need to know and to feel that there are adults who genuinely care about them and their education. I care deeply about young people. I suppose that in some ways, this is about the “me” that was a child.

As I look back on challenges I faced in my own childhood and adolescence, I can now see, as an adult, what it means to be seen as having value, even if it’s only in some small way, when you are young. Although fraught with significant challenges, I had the great blessing of having a few adults in my youth that made a huge difference in my life. People who looked at me through loving eyes, not judging me but treating me with genuine respect and a sense of value. I want to give this same gift to young people.

My proudest moment as a mentor came when an ESL student I mentored proudly walked to the front of the class to read a passage in English. To see this student gain enough self-confidence to show his fellow students that he could read English words and was not afraid to stand in front of the whole class and do so was an amazing moment for me. Although he struggled with more words than I’m sure he wanted, he did not give up. I could see his delight in having done this.

I must also tell you that my first thought about a proud moment was not witnessing this student’s successful reading experience, but an experience that gave me great personal pride and satisfaction. This occurred when a student, one I hadn’t mentored but I had had contact with in my first year as a mentor. He was in the same class with three other students I mentored, and I had only very minimal individual contact with him. On the first day of my second year mentoring, I bumped into this student on my way out the door. I didn’t know if and didn’t think he remembered me; he would seem to have no reason to. But, he did remember me. When I saw him, I made eye contact and smiled. He smiled back and I could see his sudden recognition. He said “Hi Miss” (always music to my ears – not sure why) and hugged me. I felt so happy and proud that I had left such a good impression with this student. His name was Raekwon Brown and he is the student that tragically was gunned down in front of the school in June 2016. I will forever value that moment with Raekwon.

Ms. Walton is the ESL teacher for the student I mentor. Ms. Walton and I have spoken about specific needs for my mentee and I have tried to focus on those needs as we work through in-class assignments. She is a terrific teacher and is available to answer any questions I have. She is always prepared and runs the class very efficiently. I have observed her engage all students in the class ensuring that everyone participates. Every moment in Ms. Walton’s class is filled with activity and the students are consistently enthusiastic and even have fun. I’m also impressed with her demeanor which is quiet but assured, not lecturing or just talking, but drawing students in to gain their engagement. She cleverly uses a mini xylophone that makes an unexpected but pleasant sound as the means to gain instant quiet and attention from the class.

I do not encounter the Principal, Ms. Lindsa McIntyre, very often. When I do, she always takes the time to check out my Boston Partners in Education name tag and comments that Boston Partners does “great work.” Teachers I pass from time to time always greet me with a smile, a very pleasant experience.

One would think that having had a successful career would leave me with loads of confidence in myself for anything I might want to do in retirement. However, becoming a mentor was a completely different challenge for me. I had no idea I’d feel unsure of myself going into mentoring but, unexpectedly, I was. In the first weeks of mentoring, the students I worked with were very challenging — they were disengaged and unmotivated. I believe in persistence so I was not going to give up. I have so say though, I did initially reconsider my ability to help the students I worked with.

I feel that I did leave a positive impression for the most challenging of the students I worked with in that first year. When I encountered this student in the corridor early in my second year mentoring, I stopped her and asked if she was if she was taking care of business. She smiled sheepishly and said “tryin’”, when I might reasonably have expected her to roll her eyes and walk away. So, I believe my mentoring experience has been a means for me to realize my value in ways I could not have foreseen. And at the same time, mentoring made me realize that it’s okay to do the best you can — that goes for me and for the students.