United Way’s North Shore AmeriCorps: Lessons from the Ground Up

For Kathryn Sullivan, serving at Girls Inc. of Lynn through United Way’s North Shore AmeriCorps Program has been filled with brilliant moments of growth and learning. In this week’s blog, Kathryn describes how she worked through a tough situation with one girl who, more than anything, just needed someone standing by her side, cheering her on.

Written by Kathryn Sullivan

She comes to me crying. She got detention and her mom is going to be mad. I open the drawer of my desk and bring out the tissues and a pack of Oreo cookies. I offer her both.

“Tell me what happened,” I say calmly. “But first, breathe.”

Jaquelina* is one of my sixth-grade mentees who I meet with every week at Girls Inc. of Lynn. Along with two other girls, we plan group activities that they wouldn’t normally get to do during regular programs. She has been in this country for just over a year. Her conversational English is good and she understands just about everything, but when Jaquelina is upset she slips into her native language at lightning speed. I stumble to keep up.

“A boy made fun of my eye and said I was ugly and that he was  gonna punch it into place, so I slapped him.” She pauses, gulping down a sob and I catch a glimpse of her lazy eye behind her glasses. Her eyes are puddle brown and pretty, but bear a look of indignation. I wonder to myself what I would have done if that boy had said those things to me.

Jaquelina continues. “And then my teacher sent me to the principal and he told me that I have detention for the rest of the week for breaking school rules.” She pulls a paper out of her backpack and hands it to me.

“And I have to get this signed and I just can’t tell my mom.” She blurts out, “So can you sign it for me?”

I skim the paper. It’s a sheet acknowledging that she has detention and requires a parent/guardian signature. This is the first time I’ve been asked to forge a signature for a student.

“But Jaquelina, I can’t sign this. I’m not your parent or guardian. You’re going to have to tell your mom,” I tell her gently.

Her look tells me that, of course, she already knows this. Jaquelina protests anyway, “But if I tell her she’s not going to let me go to Roller World this weekend!”

Ah-hah. There it is. The motive.

I shift in my seat and contemplate my wording. “Jaqui, I totally understand why you got upset and it was unacceptable for that boy to speak to you that way. But that doesn’t mean that you can express your hurt and anger physically. That’s unacceptable, too. You need to tell an adult if that happens and explain your feelings using your words. You know it’s not okay to use your hands.” I pause and she meets my eyes, nodding sullenly.

“As for this paper, you know that you have to tell your mom the truth, and the sooner, the better. You’re right, likely there will be consequences for your actions and you may not get to go to Roller World this weekend, but I’m sure you’ll get another chance to go. It’s important that you’re honest with your mom.”

She bites into her cookie, still not saying anything.

“If you want, we can practice what you’ll say to your mom right now.” I try to sound encouraging. “I know your mom really loves you and she’ll understand. What do you think, should we practice what you want to say?”

After a minute, she nods and we begin. We hash out her wording and practice her inflection; I advise her to be as honest as possible. We repeat the exercise several times until she feels less alone.

I stand by her side when she reaches into her coat and brings out her phone. She calls her mother and begins repeating what we rehearsed, explaining what happened. I hear Jaqui’s mother scolding her slightly on the other end, then reassuring her that she loves her. When she hangs up, Jaquelina is smiling again. Both of her eyes are bright and focused.

“I’m wanna be better,” she says, determinedly. “I’m gonna be better.”

*Name changed