Rising to Liz’s Challenge

A sermon by Nancy Shand

Nancy Shand has been a member of First Unitarian since moving back home to Tiverton, Rhode Island, about 10 years ago. She has made friends here along the way by singing with the choir for several years and working with the Food Pantry on a regular basis.

Audio Recording

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Text of Sermon

In January our new minister Liz challenged us to pick five things we want to do to give back to our community. I dutifully made up my list. Number one on that list was to bring information about the mentoring program that I am involved in to the congregation. I wasn’t sure how to approach the subject, like who to ask and how to present it — in other words, how to get started. Then, serendipitously, Michael Currier approached me and asked if I would be interested in participating in the summer services as guest speaker. And here we are!

I have been involved with a mentoring program located in Fall River, Massachusetts. Again, it was the simple yet profound act of asking that got me involved in mentoring. About nine years ago, a relatively new friend asked me if I had the time and would I like to mentor a child in a school setting. I live in Tiverton, and the schools in question were in Fall River, Massachusetts.

Easy!  I had the time; It didn’t seem to be too difficult; sounded like fun. So I said, “Yes!!!” I had no idea how much it would affect me and enrich my life as well as the life of the child.

The program is called SMILES. That stands for Southcoast Mentoring Initiative for Learning, Education, and Service. SMILES is so much easier to say. The mission of SMILES is to help at-risk children realize their personal and educational potential through a large scale one-on-one mentoring program.

You are assigned a child and work with them in a group setting in a school for one hour each week. I chose Silvia Elementary School. I like working with younger kids. The focus as a mentor is to get to know the child and be a positive constant in their lives. You have no idea why they were chosen for the program. You just know that they need someone extra in their lives.

There is a lot of help available. First, I was extensively interviewed as to who I was, what I liked, and what I thought I could bring to a child. Each group has a facilitator who organizes the focus of the session. She was also the point person we went to if we had any questions. We met in the school library. We played games, usually educational but fun, talked, read to each other, and sometimes worked on math problems. At holidays we had parties with healthy snacks; the kids loved that! They loved all food! We were also allowed to give an inexpensive book to our mentee at Christmas.

When I met Nicol for the first time I was struck by her shy adorableness. She was small for her age, and she just giggled behind her hand which was always held up to her mouth. I guess it took her awhile to feel comfortable with me. I loved her right away!

After about a month Nicol (not her real name) started to talk to me in a very tiny voice. We would sit with our heads close together just so I could hear her.

She was having difficulty with reading. I recognized some of the same problems I had as a child because of dyslexia. The letters swim around the page and jump from their proper order forming different or ridiculous words. I have the same issues with numbers. I discovered that if I read to her she was more willing to read to me. We played a lot of Uno and Chutes and Ladders together. This afforded us the time to get to know one another. After all, this is the way relationships develop.

Her family was going through difficult times, and it was enough that she had a friendly adult to confide in. Each summer it was so hard to say, ” Goodbye ,and have a good vacation.” I knew she would spend her time at home not going anywhere or doing much.

Three years into our relationship, I found out that her parents were getting a divorce and fighting over custody of her. I hugged her a lot We read interesting stories, and, in spite of her family problems, we laughed a lot. She still would hide behind her hand and collapse into fits of giggling.

I am an artist, and I was delighted to discover Nicol was very good at doing the Shape by Shape Pattern games — the ones where you make up animals, boats, and houses using very basic shaped tiles like triangles, rectangles, squares, and parallelograms. It gets the right side of the brain working. From there we launched into drawing, which is a passion of mine.

One winter she started talking about moving. You can imagine how I felt: panic. I had lost my first mentee after a year because her family moved to Georgia. I didn’t want to lose Nicol too. This talk of moving went on for another year, and when she was going into the 5th grade she announced she was going to live with her father permanently! He lived in another state. Oh no! Fortunately, it was Rhode Island.

My facilitator told me about another organization that I could join, called the Big Little Program of Fall River. Now I could follow her to Rhode Island. I had to be interviewed again and have a CORI check, which is a required criminal record check by the state if you are volunteering with children. It was worth all the aggravation because it meant I could now have contact with Nicol outside of the school system. This opened all kinds of possibilities. The main impediment was getting the parents on board. I have to credit my new facilitator at Family Services Association in Fall River. Her dedication and attention to detail made it all happen.

Now I was traveling to Warren to meet with Nicol. Things were looking up for her. She was in a better school system, started playing an instrument, and life seemed to be going more smoothly. We took trips with the larger Big Little group. One memorable event was going to the New England Aquarium in Boston. I had never been there, and we enjoyed it immensely. Bowling outings with the group were always fun. One fall we went pumpkin picking. Tickets were set aside for a Paw Sox game last summer, and this time my husband, Mike, got to join us. I’m glad he was there to answer her numerous questions about the game. It was her first experience seeing a baseball game. We had a lot of first experiences together, and still do. Two years ago, the Around the World Volvo sailing race came to Newport. Mike and I are sailors. We courted on boats back in the day. Going to see this event was high on our list, and Nicol was delighted to go see what it was all about. Along with the sleek Volvo racing boats, the new tall ship Oliver Hazard Perry was at the dock and open to the public. Nicol and I wanted to sign up as crew.

Lately, I see her more sporadically, at least two times a month for more low-key encounters. She comes to my house where we create in my studio. She loves to play with our electric piano. We make dinner together and go for walks in the woods. I hadn’t appreciated how timid she would be walking in the woods. It was something I had done as a child almost every day. Uncommon noises, the rustling of the leaves, as well as encounters with strangers we met along the way seemed to make her very uneasy. In the summer she comes to our beach usually when our granddaughters are here. Hailey and Jenna live in California and always spend at least a week with us. Jenna is close in age to Nicol. They had a grand time together playing with our water toys and making sand castles on the sand bar. I am so happy I can offer her these special adventures.

Another change in her life came with her moving to Providence a year ago. It meant a new school as well as other challenges. I try to see her after service here on Sundays. It cuts down on the travel time.

It becomes more challenging to figure out what a teenager likes to do with a senior citizen. This winter I discovered the Providence Children’s’ Film Festival which takes place at different venues all over Providence during the February school vacation. The films come from all over the world and cover a wide variety of subjects that are near and dear to the hearts of kids and teens. We saw a delightfully animated version of Revolting Rhymes, a Roald Dahl classic skewering of traditional fairy tales.

Abulele was the next film, this time from Israel. The story is about secrets and how destructive they can be. We talked about keeping secretes and how everyone has them. It’s what we choose to do with them that is important.

These films were so compelling that we stayed to take in more. Nicol was the one who asked to stay. That says a lot! After watching a group of shorts entitled, Get Up! Stand Up! We went into another room where they had set up tables loaded with cigar boxes and all manner of stuff, so we could make a memory box. This was connected to the short film titled “Compartments.” In this film, the protagonist put her feelings in boxes. Nicol made a very elaborate box. I practically had to drag her away! I definitely will be looking for this event next year. I highly recommend it for all ages.

So, “Why do I do this?” you ask. It sounds like a lot of work and preparation. It’s way more than doing things together. That simply becomes the catalyst for us talking about life and bonding over ice cream. I have forged a very special relationship with her and her family. Recently her Dad said I could just show up to take her somewhere. He said he considers me like family — the best compliment ever! I still call or text ahead to make sure where she will be. I will confess logistics can be tough, but by the time I’m together with her, all is right with the world. Ask Mike, I kvetch and moan about the difficulty of getting responses from her parents sometimes, but I always come home excited, full of stories to share about our adventures.

Nicol was surprised and a bit mystified when I told her what I would be doing for this summer service. “You’re going to talk about me?” she asked incredulously. “Yes, I’m going to talk about our relationship and why it’s a good thing to say yes!” I realized her voice needed to be heard so I asked Nicol to tell me what she thinks about our relationship. With a little prodding she came up with, “We have a lot in common.” Yes, a little more prodding, “like what?” “Well we both like art!” Yes, all the time spent in my studio and the trips to the RISD Museum have paid off. What else I asked. “We’re both girls!” Can’t get any more basic than that.

At the end of each year we both need to fill out questionnaires asking about our year together. We are also asked if we want to continue the program. I’ve told her she isn’t going to get rid of me unless she wants it to happen. So far, she has been as happy as I am to continue our relationship. I’m like a grandmother figure to her.

These are some of the reasons why I got involved with the mentoring program. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see Nicol grow physically, mentally, and emotionally. Mentoring certainly exemplifies two of our principles:

The inherent worth and dignity of every individual.

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

I wanted to share with you my experience and encourage others to join in the fun. Mike and I first came to this church on a summer Sunday, much like this day 16 years ago, looking for a spiritual home. On that morning we heard Frank Scheel speak about his trip to Guatemala with Steve Mcloy and others to do medical work among the poorer people of this poor country. It was such a heartwarming tale that we thought, if this is the type of person that makes up this congregation then we wanted in! Then we found out that he lives in our town of Tiverton, another plus! In fact, I asked Frank if he wanted to join me in the SMILES program and he did.

So often we go through our lives methodically doing what we always do. Then someone — a friend or acquaintance — comes along and ASKS (and that is the operative word here) ASKS us to do something out of the ordinary. Say, “YES” if possible, and walk through that door. It may be an experience that will change you and perhaps change a small part of this BIG WORLD.