How to encourage youth to reach their potential – a true story of transformation

How to encourage youth to reach their potential – a true story of transformation

How many times, as a teenager, did you feel alone and battling the world? I remember times when I was alone and trying to puzzle what life was all about. I would be asking questions like: Why me? Why can’t I be like that person? Why? Why? Why?

Sue (16) was battling with a serious personal issue. She was a boarder at the school. One afternoon she popped in to see me in my office. Students knew that, if my door was open, they could feel free to come in and chat. I was the school principal at the time.

Sue started talking in fairly general ways about school, life, her favorite subjects, things she enjoyed doing and so on. I listened with interest. After a while she shared that she was not looking forward to returning home during the school holidays. Her father was disabled as a result of a work accident. He had been left crippled and was confined to a wheelchair. Sue said that he was abusive towards her and had a violent temper. From the way she talked, the abuse was verbal and nothing else – still, tough for a teenager, whose brain is still developing and prone to emotional outbursts, to contend with. We needed to think through possibilities.

Explore options and be non-judgmental

We explored the different options open to Sue. I sowed some seeds to encourage her to think outside of her comfort zone. Sue reflected and responded. One idea was for Sue to apply for a United World College Scholarship. This was a Scholarship that would cover her education and boarding for the final two years of her education journey.  She would study for the International Baccalaureate. If successful, she would be able to approach almost any university for entrance to further study. Winning such a scholarship would reduce the time she would have to spend at home and that meant less time possibly being abused by her father.

During the following week I did some more research on this while Sue weighed up the possibilities. She remained keen to explore this option further, so I gave her the application forms which needed to be completed and signed by a parent. I stressed to Sue that it was important her parents supported this application.

Build a web of support around youth

Sue soon told me that her mother was fully supportive (I never asked about her father) and the forms were duly submitted. A while later Sue heard that she had been awarded a scholarship to complete her education in another country and this she did, moving to her new school at the end of that particular year.

When Sue decided to apply for the Scholarship, she knew that she would need to show that she was a genuine all-rounder. She did well academically, though she was under-performing. She had a great singing voice and participated in school choral performances and in the school musical production that year. She worked hard to improve her social skills, as she had a tendency to annoy her peers by occasionally making insensitive comments. Sue went through some challenging months. However, her life had meaning and purpose, she felt cared for and valued, so she responded positively to the challenges facing her. I remained a quiet background supporter in those months before she headed off on a wonderful adventure.

6 Lessons for Sue to reach her potential

Looking back, what life lessons can be taken from Sue’s transformational experience? What role could a mentor take to encourage and support her as the wise guide on the side?

  1. Sue arrived at a point in her life when she needed to talk to someone she respected about her situation and express her feelings. She had the courage and chose to be vulnerable and share something that was difficult to talk about and was clearly a painful part of her life. My role was to show as much empathy as I could and to encourage her.
  2. Sue was receiving subsidized education as her family had little money. In the discussion we had, she came to see that there were opportunities for her, though hard work and consistent effort would be needed to take advantage of any such opportunities. There were no short cuts available. I was sensitive to her situation, though also had to be truthful about the challenges ahead. Sue also had to face the reality of her unique situation.
  3. Sue could have given up, accepted her lot in life and stayed at the school. However, when she saw the opportunity to advance, to travel and to obtain an excellent education in another country, she moved out of her comfort zone and began to chase a new dream. Her perseverance was rewarded. I helped her to envision new possibilities using her God-given gifts and talents.
  4. Sue was an opinionated young woman. She learnt how to follow her idealism and to talk with greater empathy to her peers and family members. My role was to share ideas and thoughts about building meaningful relationships with others, listen with genuine interest and concern to Sue and guide her through approaches to positively resolve conflict scenarios.
  5. Sue had a warm, beautiful smile and a wonderful sense of humor. She genuinely cared about other people. She learnt how to reach out to others in need and she gave of herself to support people less privileged than herself. My role was to push her to do more, so she kept developing resiliency. At the same time we talked about management of time and living a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
  6. Sue changed her attitude towards life, towards school, towards her family and towards her peers and reaped the rewards. My role was as a seed sower who also opened her mind and eyes to what ‘might’ be.

I have no idea where Sue is now, though I hope she is living a happy and fulfilling life. Her defining moment was probably having the courage to trust me with her feelings about life at home. She would pop into my office, maybe once a fortnight, just to chat. She taught me plenty and, hopefully, our interactions gave her the confidence to step out and chase her dreams.

Mentors are amazing people

Therein lies the message for volunteer adult mentors  and teachers to share with youth: the importance of sharing our feelings, our dreams and our ideals with an adult or adults we trust. There is always a risk when we do this. As we discover that the person we choose to speak to is non-judgmental and doesn’t want to offer advice every second minute of the conversation, we will soon discover who to trust with the deeper issues we carry around with us.

How did you end up overcoming those feelings of loneliness? Perhaps you have a story to share with young people and others who are journeying with youth.

About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organizer, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be using their God-given talents. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in New Zealand and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can see his short daily mentoring tips on Facebook or contact him through his Mentoring Matters website  Robin’s free Mentoring Minutes daily podcasts (each podcast between 2 and 4 minutes), containing hundreds of tips for anyone working with young people, are available hereAbout 45 blogs have been converted to short video clips, all of which are linked to encouraging youth to reach their potential. These are available on YouTube