From Doctor to Mentor
Growing up in the developing country of Peru, Dr. Maria Smith witnessed the need for more community, brotherhood, empathy and support in her hometown. Her experiences in Peru deeply shaped her life, even after she moved to the United States 17 years ago. Today, as a primary care physician specializing in internal medicine, Dr. Smith sees firsthand the emotional needs of her patients at her practice in Flint, Michigan. She understands the importance of having a supportive mentor there to listen and offer a helping hand.
“Every day I see young people in my practice, and also adults, who had very challenging childhoods,” she said. “They are people who are lonely or having a very challenging journey by themselves and having somebody just to be there by their side is probably important. Also, I have a teenage daughter that shares with me the struggles that her friends have. So, the parents are aware the kids have that need for somebody to be there.”
A Desire to Give Back
Becoming a mentor to a young person in foster care was one way Dr. Smith felt she could provide support and words of encouragement while giving back to the community.
“I am at a point in my life where I’ve achieved things that I wanted,” said Dr. Smith. “They were main goals in my life, and once you have it then you say, ‘Oh, my God, now what do I do with all that I’ve got?’ So, there was a desire of sharing time, my heart, myhand with somebody somewhere.”
It was February of 2022 when Dr. Smith received word from Judson Center’s Child Safe Mentoring Program that she had been matched with a young person in foster care in the Flint area. The good news came more than two years after she had submitted her mentor application.
“I was happy and nervous at the same time,” she explained. “I said, ‘Okay, what is going to happen? Is she or he going to like me or be comfortable?’ ”
Dr. Smith was matched with a teenage boy named Andrew. The Mentoring Program staff guided Dr. Smith through the process of becoming a mentor and meeting her new mentee.
“Not only did Judson Center facilitate the encounter, they facilitated us getting to know each other,” she said. “He was provided with a list of my favorite things and vice versa. After that, they also guided me with some advice on how to manage special situations and how to contact the foster parent so that everything can be okay and smooth. I text them with any questions, and they are always there for me.”
Growing a Supportive Relationship
The pair’s first meeting took place at Andrew’s foster home. Both were initially filled with uncertainty and anxiety. Neither had ever participated in a mentor/mentee relationship.
“It was so different. He’s a young man and I’m a 50-something-year-old woman,” Dr. Smith mused. “I have a Latin background. So, I wondered how is this going to work?”
It was also a different experience for Andrew: “When I first met her, it was kind of hard to understand her sometimes, because of her accent. But I got used to it as time went on, and I understood her a lot more. “
The two quickly learned they shared similar interests, including a love of martial arts. On many weekends, Dr. Smith takes the 18-year-old Andrew to karate practice and they usually eat out afterwards. The pair also likes animals and often volunteer at a local Adopt-a-Pet shelter where they walk the dogs and play with them. The outings are something the two look forward to on the weekends. Plus, they stay in touch during the week via text messaging and social media platforms.
From New Mentor to Lifelong Friend
“It makes me happy. We learn things together,” Andrew said. “She’s one of those people I can look up to or call if I need anything.”
“He is an amazing individual,” said Dr. Smith. “He’s very perceptive of many things. He knows me more, and I think he feels comfortable with our relationship. He knows he has somebody there.”
The key to their successful mentor and mentee relationship lies in their ability to listen to each other with an open heart and mind.
“I think since the beginning, Andrew’s attitude toward me — a new person in his life — was so nice and open. And, I think that helped a lot,” Dr. Smith said.
“Since I have known her for a long time, I don’t look at her as a mentor,” said Andrew. “I look at her as a best friend now. It’s pretty awesome.”