National Mentoring Day, January 21, 2016

Meet Linda and Melzetta!

— by Leni Miller

Melzetta Key Note Speaker in Philadelphia

Melzetta Key Note Speaker in Philadelphia

I interviewed Linda Mornell for my last column in the Huffington Post. 

January is National Mentor Month.  January 21 is National Mentor day.  A moment to savor, reflect and honor mentoring and mentors!  I decided to write an article on mentoring.  My friend Leni Miller offered to put it into the Huffing ton Post.  Nice!  Only one problem she wanted it right away.  My learning curve began.  I dashed one off and tried to email Melzetta—new email.  So without her input I sent it anyway.  Wrong.  As a new writer I had to learn never to succumb to someone eases time table but stick to my own.  By the time Mel read it it had already been posted.  Mel sent some corrections anyway and so much better.  So here is the much improved article with our chance to work together.  Thanks Mel and proud of this and of us both!

It began with right work which included almost 20 years in a private counseling practice and another 20 years founding and running a non-profit to help kids.  Those combined experiences taught me that there are three major factors that help people make changes in their lives: the degree of pain and discomfort they feel, their ability to reflect and look inward for answers, and the mentors they choose.  In her journey toward change Melzetta chose me to tell her story and I choose her for Summer Search.  It all started in 1994 at Oakland High School.

“This is Melzetta,” says Mrs.  Ferrier, the referring teacher.

Linda: “I looked closely at the young woman sitting outside of the empty interview room at Oakland High School. She was a dark skinned African American, seriously overweight and there is a large bowl of greasy Nachos on the desk she has managed to squeeze into while waiting for her interview. The referring teacher knows that I am looking for low-income students who can participate in summer programs on full scholarships for the non-profit I have founded called Summer Search.  Students need to have some degree of athleticism.  What was Mrs. Ferrier thinking?

Melzetta and I make our way into the interview room where all is suddenly quiet.  I ask her the standard question of what it’s like to walk in her shoes.  Can she tell me about her life and especially her challenges?

After an initial hesitation, Melzetta launches into a very specific story of what it was like to grow up homeless in Oakland; of ping ponging from shelters, to the streets, to section 8 housing that always seemed to fall through as it does for so many families trapped in the cycle of extreme poverty.  Yet they always stuck together. Melzetta ended with quietly humming the song her mother always sang when it was time to move, ‘On the road again’.

Then Melzetta did something that changed her life and mine too, forever.  She smiled.  It is hard to describe that smile but it began on one side of her broad expressive face and continued wider and wider until if felt like, not only did it light up the room but it revealed a soul that was going to light up the universe.  She looked into my eyes and concluded with, “I guess you could say that instability has been my stability. The one thing I could count on growing up.”

Okay.  That began a relationship that continues to this day.  Melzetta went to Concordia Language School in Minnesota that summer to study Spanish.  As a first step out of her very limited environment and with kids mostly from affluent backgrounds, I worried.  But there was no need to worry—after an initial withdrawal the first week, Melzetta, forever flexible, was able to bond with the kids and became known across the campus as Big Mamma, the person anyone could go to and talk about their problems. Not only that, with this chance to succeed Mel excelled academically and came home with a whole year of credit in Spanish.

Melzetta went on to do something no one had done in her family, she graduated from Oakland High and went on to attend Kenyon College in Ohio on a full scholarship.  She graduated, worked in the financial sector and then went on to get an MBA at the University of Rochester, Simon Business School and landed an amazing job at Comcast NBC Universal.  At the twenty fifth anniversary of Summer Search she was the keynote speaker at the Summer Search Philadelphia office celebration, spelling out clearly to a rapt audience how investing in in a young person with the talent and desire to succeed but not the opportunity is indeed an investment in a soul that will go on to light up the universe with something that is too often missing: hope for a better world. To this day, despite still struggling with her weight, Melzetta has the confidence and success to match her infectious personality and continues to travel the world and spread that same joy and energy I felt when we first met.

 As one of Melzetta’s mentors, I feel so fortunate that I had the opportunity to be in the shoes of someone from such a different background and that we share a common humanity that has bound us together for twenty years, hopefully with many more to come.

This is what becoming a mentor can do. To quote Sasha a Russian immigrant and the very first Summer Search student from 1990, “Mentoring can broaden our circle of moral concern. For many people this circle includes only themselves, maybe their family.  For others, it’s a bit bigger and includes their community.  And for some, the lucky few, the circle extends to the ‘other.’”

Count us in.  Melzetta and I are among the lucky few!