Nonfiction | Turning Points

Be a Mentor Today…

And Change Two Lives Tomorrow

With kids facing so many challenges in a fast-paced, demanding, and often disconnected world, the steady presence of a caring adult can have a profoundly positive impact. For some, a parent naturally fills this role. But others may need someone outside the family, a mentor, to be their trusted ally and advocate. As I learned being a long-distance dad to a fine young man in South Africa, this can be a deeply rewarding and life-changing experience – and not just for the kid.

Mtuseni and I originally first connected via webcam chats arranged by a non-profit. Live images and voice quickly erased any sense of physical distance. As we discussed music and movies and typical teen problems, it was easy to forget that geographically we’re half a world apart. Culturally the gap is wider: a single, gay, white, recovering Catholic from a wealthy Northeast state … and a black, devout Christian, Zulu teenager living in a cinderblock shack with his illiterate mom and two young siblings. But we’re surprisingly alike in many ways, and we quickly developed a deep bond.

A shy, naive high school senior when we first met, Mtuseni told me wanted to study radio at a college in Johannesburg. Despite a poor public education, he is bright, curious, and articulate. With his mother earning about two hundred dollars a month, college would be impossible. Although I barely knew the kid, I do know what it’s like to be young and full of hope for a future that extends far past the horizon. After a few weeks of careful reflection, I promised to pay his tuition. I’ll never forget the look on his face, lighting up my laptop screen with joy and surprise.

Fast forward six years … and my sweet boy is now in his 20s. We’ve spent time together in Johannesburg and here in America. He finished college, serving as vice-president of the student committee. Last year he was a team captain and service leader for City Year South Africa, tutoring and mentoring seventh graders in a poor township school. At a leadership summit in Washington DC, he spoke on stage at the Newseum about the impact I’ve had on his life. If I had been there, the tears would have been epic.

It hasn’t been easy, guiding Mtuseni through life experiences big and small. Pushing him, assuring him, consoling him, inspiring him. Shaping him into a good man. In the process, I was surprised to find myself being reshaped, becoming a good man, a better man, a whole man.

My work isn’t over. Now we focus on finding him a job in the miserable South African economy: resumes and cover letters and interview prep fill our agenda. 

And earlier this year my role grew – as I found a private school for his sister Bongeka and made my first tuition payment. With her just starting seventh grade, I know my commitment will extend for years. And then there’s little brother Musa…

This family has become my family.

Certainly, over time the relationship with Mtuseni became more than mentoring. On my birthday a few years ago, he sent me a long note that said, “You have completely changed my life. You are a father to me and I love you.” It’s the best gift I’ve ever received.

There’s a company whose advertising slogan says that having a baby changes everything. Sometimes mentoring a kid can, too.