Several months ago, while working at Villa Santa Barbara, Mary Ann Helman stood in the lobby when her former mentee, Itzell, walk in out of the blue. Mary Ann rushed over to give her a hug and ask her why she was there, to which Itzell responded that she applied for an job opening and today was her interview with the Executive Director. Even though they stayed in touch since their match officially ended several years ago, Mary Ann had no idea Itzell planned to apply at Villa Santa Barbara, and Itzell did not know that Mary Ann happened to work there.
There could be no greater proof of the impact Mary Ann had on Itzell’s life than this happy accident. Mary Ann was delighted to see her first mentee demonstrating such a drive to work and give back to the community just as Mary Ann always encouraged. With a little advice and support from Mary Ann, and an enthusiastic recommendation to the Executive Director, Itzell went on to ace her interview and earn the job on the spot. Now as they work together, Mary Ann treasures the opportunity to strengthen their bond as adults and coworkers and couldn’t wait to share their inspiring story with us at the Mentor Program.
When Mary Ann Helman was matched with Itzell in 2006, Itzell was in the 5th grade, and not doing well in school. She was one of those children that struggles to keep up, but isn’t failing badly enough, or causing enough disruption in the classroom, to warrant much attention. She was withdrawn, sat in the back of the classroom, and rarely participated. She wasn’t connected with others her age and teachers and counselors described her as being “in a shell.” The personal attention she lacked at school was also missing at home as her exhausted mother struggled to juggle work and taking care of her children. Luckily both Itzell’s teacher and her mother had recognized how helpful a mentor would be for her and emphatically supported her referral to the Fighting Back Mentor Program, leading to her match with Mary Ann soon after.
Today, 7 years after being matched with Mary Ann, Itzell is a healthy, happy, outgoing high school Senior; popular with schoolmates, involved in school activities, and getting nearly straight A’s. Not to mention her new internship at Villa Santa Barbara where she uses her talents to support her community. Much of this transformation is due to Itzell’s own strengths, but a great deal can be attributed to Mary Ann Helman’s mentoring at a critical time in Itzell’s life.
I had a chance to ask Mrs. Helman about her approach to mentoring Itzell, and how she accomplished what she did with her mentee.
“The first thing I did,” Mrs. Helman told me, “was take her to the library. I helped her find books she liked, and she started to read. And her schoolwork started to improve. My plan with her was to find out what she wanted, what she liked, and work from there.”
While Itzell was beginning to read, Mrs. Helman learned that she was interested in dance. Helman found that this was an opportunity to involve Itzell’s family, since her mother hoped she would become involved in Alma de Mexico, a traditional Mexican dance group in Santa Barbara. Mrs. Helman encouraged mother and daughter to take the opportunity to become involved in dance, and soon Itzell was performing as a new member of Alma de Mexico. Helman assisted, often taking Itzell to dance practice when her mother was unable to do so because of her work schedule.
As time went on, Mrs. Helman found ways to involve Itzell in other interests. Helman had friends who had horses, and they were willing to let Itzell ride and care for the animals. To help Itzell become involved with her classmates, Mrs. Helman came to the playground after school with soccer balls and organized games with all the children. One of Mrs. Helman’s most important initiatives was to involve Itzell in Helman’s volunteer activities. Mrs. Helman worked with the Performing Visual Arts Camp, the Santa Barbara Boys Choir, Our Lady of Sorrows Choir, and Villa Santa Barbara. She took Itzell to board meetings and activities, and Itzell became fascinated with volunteerism.
Mrs. Helman told me that she never missed a meeting with her mentee, throughout all their years together. As the years went by she involved herself deeply with Itzell’s family, often attending family occasions on their request. She also brought her Itzell into her own family, and Itzell even attended Mary Ann’s son’s wedding. Itzell received lots of one-on-one attention from Mary Ann, often much more than one hour a week, and through her constant attention and encouragement she blossomed into a incredible young lady. Mary Ann Helman’s approach with Itzell was always to accentuate the positive.
As she said to me, “I told Itzell she was smart, that she could do whatever she wanted to do. And in time, she would say back to me, ‘you’re right! I can do this!”
By the time Itzell entered Junior High School, she had recreated herself as a vibrant, connected and academically successful young person. Her principal remarked to Helman, “What a great transformation!” Itzell and Helman mutually agreed to dissolve their formal mentoring partnership, since both felt that the mentoring relationship had been successful and done what it was intended to do, and other young people needed Mrs. Helman’s attention. They never stopped communicating, however, and Itzell has gone on to be an exemplary student and participant in her Junior High School and now High School community.
Now they are seeing each other weekly again as coworkers at Villa Santa Barbara and Mary Ann shared with us how blessed she feels to reconnect with Itzell as a young adult, and experience what a beautiful person she has become. They are a perfect example of the profound effect that a mentor can have on a young person, and because of Mary Ann’s incredible commitment to helping Itzell and influencing her to give back to the community, they are now working together to make Santa Barbara a better place.