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9/11 and the Call to Mentor our Nation's Youth

  • Published
  • By Chaplain (Maj.) John Love
  • 146th Airlift Wing
As we approach 9/11, many thoughts and prayers swirl about in our minds and hearts. We think of the many people whose lives were irrevocably changed in a matter of hours. From victim to responder, all were immediately drawn into the single most significant and horrible day of terror in our nation's history. It is important to remember that these were not just individuals, but people who built their lives around family. These victims were moms and dads, uncles and aunts, grandparents and big brothers and sisters. All of which leads me to think that of the many holes that were punched through the heart of America that day 10 years ago, none was more keenly felt than that the loss suffered by those teens who relied on moms and dads and uncles and aunts and grandparents for mentorship and guidance.

Mentoring is a common theme in military life: we seek to establish a particular friendship with someone senior to us in rank and/or age so that we can enjoy a similar path of success and happiness in our own professional lives as citizen-airmen. The same theme of professional mentoring here at the 146th AW is present in our daily civilian and family life. Just this past week, I happened to read a pastoral letter on the subject of youth-mentoring from Bishop Gerald Barnes, the Catholic bishop of San Bernardino. Contained within his main points are valuable lessons that we can learn as we gather this weekend to remember those teens (now young adults) who were stranded to fend for themselves in the absence of the many family members who were their mentors. I would like to share a few points based on Bishop Barnes' thoughts that might be helpful to you in your own dealings with the teens especially if you are a lucky parent of one or more teenagers. By the way, if you are single and reading this, don't think for a minute that you are exempt from being a mentor to the youth! You who are young airmen have friends, little brothers and sisters and cousins who admire you. In fact, when they see you in your uniform, they are secretly so proud of you that they want to burst. You need to seek kids out and begin mentoring if you have not already done so.

In his letter, Bishop Barnes points out some critical areas of focus that impact and assist young people as they journey toward adulthood. He states that a big part of our job as the "adult corps" of our nation's family leadership is to make sure that teens know the following four things about our relationship to them: that we will always accompany, teach, challenge and listen to our youth.
  • We accompany youth: We walk with them. We help them to see by our presence that we know they are special and that we are there for them at a very critical moment in the lifecycle when big questions and worthy dreams arise. As we all know, teens may or may not always kindly acknowledge our presence, but that does not change our presence in their lives. Often, just having an adult around makes the difference. Knowing that you are near is very much like knowing that God is present in your spiritual life; we may not always consciously be aware of his presence until that presence is taken away. It's the same with a teenager who is both struggling to find his or her own identity and also still clinging to childhood. As the sayings goes: 90 percent of life is just showing up. Make sure you are a visible presence to your teens and show up for the events that are important to them: sports events, drama and other educational moments.
  • We teach youth: As Airmen, we know that learning occurs in many shapes and forms. We attend formal classes, and we train up physically and mentally for the challenges of our jobs here on base, but the best learning often occurs in those moments outside of the classroom or shop, listening to those who have earned the vast riches of experience from multiple deployments and just plain old "years under the belt." You, as a mentor to a young person, have much to offer. Don't minimize the experience you have gained from life's experiences. Also, realize that you often teach by example, and that what you refrain from doing in your personal and professional life (smoking and drinking in the presence of teen are the two best examples that come to my mind) is often just as important as what you do in the eyes of an impressionable young person.
  • We challenge youth: being a mentor to a young person means that you are NOT called to be an older friend or "buddy" for a teenager. In fact, teenagers generally don't want to be friends with you! On the contrary, they want you to challenge them to be their best when they are struggling with their own path. Teenagers value idealism and truth. Don't compromise your own sense of ethics and common sense in an effort to "build a friendship" with a young person. You simply cannot build a proper teaching-mentoring relationship by attempting to create an equal footing with a teen. You are in control, you are the adult, and you must exercise control and show a young person that with hard work, integrity and perseverance, they too can become a successful and happy adult person.
  • We listen to youth: There is an old saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach always. If necessary, use words." In order to teach, we need not shout or force our moral lessons down the throats of our kids. We all know from observation that the best teacher is the one who uses few, but well chosen words. Young people watch you with eagle eyes, seeing how you interact with and treat others, especially when the interaction causes you stress and difficulty. Keep you cool around your teens, and they will also learn to keep their cool. Finally, I might add that you need strong shoulders and a big box of Kleenex to wipe the tears to be a mentor to a teen! Once teens gain your trust, the fears and challenges of their life will be made known to you, and often to you alone.
Although I probably don't need to say it, always be sure to act in accordance with common sense, legal-mindedness, and the highest sense of virtue when speaking or interacting with teenagers outside of your family circle, i.e. when coaching, teaching or mentoring. God bless you in your efforts to mentor the teens in your life, most especially those who lack parental supervision or other good adult examples.