Mentoring // Karen Spears Zacharias

This post is a part of the Dancing Jesus: Mentoring in the Church blog series that will be ongoing through the month of September. You can read about the series and view the schedule here. You can subscribe to all of the posts here.

My daughter called me for advice recently. She was going school clothes shopping and wanted some help with the logistics.

First there was the budget issue. What’s the better investment – jeans, pants or dresses?

“How much do you intend to spend?” I asked.

“Not sure,” she said. “It depends on what I end up buying.”

I knew with her husband still in graduate school, whatever it was, the budget would be tight.

“Daddy and I would like to help out, okay?” I said.

“That’d be great,” she said. “Then maybe I could get both pants and dresses.”

My 28-year-old daughter wasn’t school-clothes shopping for herself. My daughter is a mentor. The child she was taking shopping is not her own.

Once a week, for the past year now, my daughter has met with another woman’s daughter. That very first day, the little girl announced, “I hate my mother.”

I imagine it’s hard at age 7 not to feel abandoned when your mama is in prison. It’s probably hard at any age. An estimated 1.7 million children have at least one parent in state or federal prison. Seventy-five percent of all women incarcerated are mothers.

When Daddy heads to prison, only two percent of the children end up in foster care. When Mama heads to prison, a whopping 11 percent of children end up in foster care. The other children left behind most often end up being cared for by a mish-mash of relatives. They sleep on couches, on floors, or if they are lucky, in somebody else’s bed. Rarely, if ever, does someone have the time to read them a bedtime story.

Time was the first gift my daughter gave to her mentee – books were the second gift.

Initially, her goal as a mentor was to help the little girl become a better student. They would meet once a week during the school year, have lunch and read books together. Sometimes they’d get a wild hair and swap out the reading books for the coloring books.

My daughter is an artist. She liked those days best. The only dilemma in that was deciding which crayon best colored the world.

On the rare occasion that my daughter would miss her weekly visit, her mentee would cry. Living in a household with a father and a younger brother can be tough on a little girl. You have to be daughter, mother, sister, and caretaker of all things tender.

Knowing how important their weekly visits were, my daughter couldn’t conceive of letting a whole summer lapse before she saw her mentee again.

She bought notecards and self-addressed and stamped each one.

“You can write to me and tell me about your summer,” she told the young girl.

Still, the young girl needed consistency, someone in her life who would not abandon her simply because summer break dictated it. So with permission of the school’s administration, and the cooperation of the young girl’s father, the two continued their weekly meetings throughout the summer.

The back-to-school shopping trip was their first official outing together. And although it was her idea, it made my daughter nervous. Being a mentor is a deliberate dance. Overstepping one’s boundaries can ruin the relationship. My daughter wants to be a mentor, not a mother.

“I wish you could be here,” she said. I also heard what she did not say: How does one deal with the dressing room? She couldn’t very well send the young girl off to the dressing room alone. But attending to the young girl without benefit of supervision wouldn’t be right either.

Since my schedule wouldn’t allow for me to be there, I suggested she call a friend, someone with a child the same age, and invite them along.

She had the perfect pair in mind — a grandmother who was raising her granddaughter.

“Text me,” I said. “And send me pictures.”

The first photo arrived while I was at a dinner party in Portland.

The woman sitting next to me leaned over to see the first of several photos my daughter sent. I think she thought the little girl was my granddaughter.

“My daughter’s a mentor,” I said. “She’s taken her mentee school-clothes shopping. She wants to know what I think of this outfit. What do you think?”

We picked the black-and-pink plaid over the black-and-white-striped dress. The messages continued to arrive, with photos of leggings and shoes and stylish tops to mix-and-match. For the next 20 minutes, we ignored the food in front of us and discussed which of the outfits we liked best.

Finally, the woman, who works in the legal field, pulled her own 12-year-old daughter close to her side and proclaimed, “Your daughter is changing that young girl’s life.”

“Yes,” I said. “She is.”

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide? Zondervan, 2010. She blogs at and Twitters @karenzach