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BranchOut! Mentors Reflect on Experiences at Patrick Henry Family Shelter

Arriving at Patrick Henry Homeless Shelter, I thought that similar to the children at the Willston Community Center, they merely came to the shelter for a summer camp. But, it was when I heard the kids say that they were going up to their apartment, saying that they were neighbors, that I realized that these kids did not have a place other than a shelter to call home. When I asked one of the older boys what school he was going to, he shook his head, saying that he did not know and they had just moved to the area. Shelters provide only temporary housing and many families that live in Patrick Henry move from one shelter to another.

One of the younger girls had four other siblings; a family of six all having to fit into one apartment. Nevertheless, all the kids welcomed me into their home with open arms. Before I could even set down my bag, there was already a little girl running towards me excitedly. She quickly grabbed my arm and pulled me over to show-off the tinfoil boat she had just constructed. Beaming from ear to ear, she proudly told me that her boat was winning the contest and the other mentors and I were clearly impressed that the flimsy, yet creative structure, had survived the weight of forty some legos without sinking. When we moved onto reading, the same little girl excitedly grabbed a story book and sat next to me. Though she did not know how to read, she tried her best to sound out the words. Ultimately, I ended up reading the story out loud to her and her sister as they both cuddled up next to me.

The kids were even more excited to go outside. The younger ones did not even understand how to play freeze tag, but still ran around freely, having just as much fun as any of us. One girl, Malina, who only spoke Spanish, made a particular impression on me as well. When we were inside, she always sat quietly by herself, drawing a picture or cutting a paper snowflake. She was shy and did not seem to want to engage with the mentors or the other kids. When I felt a gentle tap and turned around to see her timid, yet joyful face, I was surprised that she had come over. Not only that, she had brought over all her new art pieces, complete with a self portrait drawn with a purple crayon and a couple snowflakes. I ooed and awed, genuinely proud of her creations and she giddily went back to create more.

We ended the day with a game of Mafia. As we were playing, Malina and her friend would creep up behind me and tap me, resulting in an intense game of peek-a-boo. Though they did not say anything to me, their giggles and smiles communicated much more than words. Everytime I peeked over and saw them watching me secretly, they scampered away shyly, laughing and covering their faces.

I know that these young children to not have much. They do not gain much exposure to the world outside of their shelter, outside of that town, yet they smile as if they have the whole world within their reach. Their creativity and potential to become leaders of their generation illuminates as they passionately learn from everything we teach them. Their outgoingness is something I hope to learn from and their eagerness to welcome me, a stranger, so warmly is a gift I will remember and cherish forever.

- Teresa Dong

I came back to Patrick Henry for the second time. There were no new children, but the experience was drastically different from what it was like last week because I was working with a group of new mentors.

Right as I walked in, the same girl who welcomed me last week ran up to hug me. I was shocked by her enthusiasm once again, but happy that she was excited to see me. When I brought out the supplies for the activities we would be doing, all the children quickly ran up to the table, grabbing things out of the bag, already starting to create their own masterpieces. When I was talking with one little girl, I also learned that she and her family would be moving soon. Her two other sisters were also there with her, all with the same outgoing, bubbly personality, but in that moment, they all seemed saddened by the thought of leaving the BranchOut! mentors. When I asked them where they would be moving to, they shook their heads, not knowing where their next home would be.

We continued the afternoon with an intense game of Apples to Apples as Emily and I dominated. But, the younger kids quickly got bored so we moved on to creating paper plate mazes. Cutting the straws and making their own designs, they were clearly happy to have an opportunity to explore their creative side. When everyone had completed their mazes, they were excited to try them, but definitely more excited for snack time. As they ate their snacks, the children liked to ask us interesting questions that often made the mentors and I laugh. From “Do you have a boyfriend?” to them talking about their own boy crushes, our conversations were quite humorous.

Throughout the afternoon, kids slowly began to trickle out until Malina was the only little girl left. When she had first arrived, she was evidently excited to see us. She ran in, curiously looking at the mazes the other children had made. The shelter coordinator told us that she had been begging her mom to take her to see the BranchOut! Mentors all day; it was wonderful to hear the children appreciate and enjoy their time with us. Since none of us spoke Spanish well, we resorted to asking her simple questions or communicating through Google Translate. Even though few words were spoken, she still seemed to have a lot of fun, coloring on plates, reading books, and playing games. She also got more comfortable with us and compared to last week, she was no longer her shy self. She was chasing the mentors around the room, giggling with joy, and not afraid to ask for something she wanted.

When all the children had left, the mentors and I were able to sit down together and talk. In that moment, I was grateful that BranchOut! had allowed me to meet so many new people and during my interview for the BranchOut! video, I had even shared that through meeting all these other students, I had discovered that I can be much more extroverted and outgoing. Mary, the shelter director, came in one last time to share some other thoughts on the program. She said that since many of the parents living in the shelter allocate a lot of their time towards finding a job or a permanent home, they do not focus a lot of attention on their own children. Siblings often just play with each other in their apartments and do not have an opportunity to truly explore the vast world around them. Even though we only come once a week, one day of focused attention, learning, and exploration can positively impact their childhood, creating change that will last them a lifetime.

- Teresa Dong

I walked into the play area of Patrick Henry Family Shelter and was met with the sounds of excited children. I glanced around the room and saw the colorful walls decorated with drawings of Peter Pan and Neverland. One of the little girls ran towards me and gave me a huge hug as welcome; I quickly put my bag down and approached her and her sisters.

We first began to make aluminum boats. As the other mentors and I began to take out the materials, all the kids circled around us and excitement was in the air. Although I thought that the boats would all look the same as our example, I was surprised to see how each person made completely different boats: some made boats that were in the shape of small circles and some were almost the same size of the water container. As each mentee put their weights into the boat, they squealed in excitement when each time another weight was added, the boat still stayed afloat.

One of the little girls made a boat that was too small that it could only contain a few pebbles before the whole boat dropped. Seeing that her boat was not as “good” as the others, she ran to the corner of the room and began to cry. I walked towards her and began to comfort her by encouraging her to make another one. Then another mentor who had candy in her hands yelled, “Whoever makes the best boat gets candy!” As soon as she heard this, the little girl quickly took my hand into hers and ran to get more aluminum foil to make another boat. Her eyes lit with elation and began to remake her boat. After a while, she made another boat with my help.

Soon, the kids all wanted to go outside and play freeze tag. I decided to start as the tagger and chased the children around the playground. At first, I thought my job would be very easy as they did not seem like they were fast runners, but I quickly found out that I was very wrong. In the first few minutes, I could barely catch anyone. Soon, I realized that I needed more people to help me tag people so in the end, the game of tag turned into mentors against mentees.

Mentoring at Patrick Henry has been an experience like nothing else. I have grown as a mentor and established many friendships with both the mentors and mentees.

- Emily Yu

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