We sit silently side by side in the moving car. She is slumped over, texting, headphones in her pierced ears. No music. The discomfort in the air is thick. I clutch the steering wheel reminding myself of everything this young life has seen. I remind myself she has witnessed more domestic violence than any child I have ever worked with. I remind myself she has been affected by familial murder. I remind myself of the neglect and poverty that seem to have followed her for the past decade. I remind myself most everyone in this teen’s life has left her. I remind myself I will not be the next. No matter how hard she tries to push me away. I drive on.
I have known Tasha since she was ten. For four years, I have picked her up one afternoon a week to go on an outing. We have gone to pet stores, movie theatres, community centers, parks, shopping malls, nail salons, soup kitchens, Mexican restaurants, friends’ homes, and community events. She has been mostly silent for nearly two hundred and eight weeks straight, mumbling only short sentences or words here and there in response to my questions and comments. Occasionally, her eyes have brightened at the sight of a cute animal, upon hearing one of my ridiculous jokes or stories, while sipping on an Oreo milkshake at the mall.
Out of the nine youth I have mentored at Friends of the Children-Portland during the past four years, she has been my toughest. She has been my quietest, most reserved, most resistant youth. I have driven home after outings in my white Honda more times than not, with tears dripping down my face, my heart hurting for her. Reminding myself her resistance is a coping skill, a safety mechanism she has had to develop to protect herself, not a personal attack.
I have coped by reminding myself why I admire her more than the rest. Tasha has a quiet strength that cannot be matched. Her heart beats for her family and I have seen her do any and everything for her siblings and grandmother. This young woman has hope for a future different from her past, a future where she thrives and serves the community that shaped her. Her brown eyes have seen more than mine ever will and she chooses to push forward every day. That is grit. I am lucky to have this girl sit next to me in the car once a week, whether it be in silence or quiet conversation, discomfort, or peace.
COVID-19 hit 7 months ago, and I thought I would lose the relationship completely. I was confined to mentor Tasha through texts and video chats, the occasional food box drop-off, and letters. She did not seem to want to spend time with me in person for four years, I was positive she would not want to spend time with me in this unknown virtual space. I was wrong.
Tasha and my relationship have flourished during this virtual mentoring period at Friends of the Children-Portland. We text almost daily, write letters and any time I can get permission to drop off a food box at her home, I am there. Chatting for five minutes here and there with faces masked standing on her apartment porch have become some of our most precious times. I think Tasha needed to know that I would stay.
I made a commitment to Tasha four years ago that I would be there for her no matter what. Not Preliminary resistance, working from home, being confined to mentoring almost entirely virtually, tragedy, tears, nor a pandemic will keep me or the other mentors at Friends of the Children-Portland from standing by our children and family’s side - giving them the support they deserve and learning from them more than we could ever teach. I am proud to be Tasha’s mentor and will remain by her side, whatever it takes, no matter what.
*Written by a Friend. Youth's name changed to protect their identity. Photo does not reflect youth in the story.