My life was turned upside down when Hurricane Katrina forced my family to leave New Orleans in 2005 and relocate to Texas and then Georgia.
I wasn’t thinking about the future. My family lost everything in the storm. And I always seemed to find some way to get myself in trouble.
Then I found a caring adult in my school — Ms. Barnes, a Communities in Schools organizer. Ms. Barnes became my mentor. She was always there to help me talk through how I could make better decisions next time. It was the push I needed to grow and start taking responsibility for myself.
Every student deserves a support system and a mentor. When students are just surviving, just getting by, they don’t have the mental bandwidth to think about the future. Having a mentor to help navigate obstacles creates space to think beyond just the next class, day or difficulty. Unfortunately, many students don’t have mentors, and that needs to change. Adults can change the situation, but so can other students.
When a teacher pointed out students who reminded her of me — who I was before I’d met Ms. Barnes — I became a mentor to three young women at my high school. This teacher believed that I was the best person to mold these three ladies into the strong, capable women she knew they could be. Ms. Barnes was such a good example of what a mentor should be that it felt natural for me to take on this responsibility.
But I don’t plan to stop at these three. As I continue on to college, I’ll be on the lookout for more young women who need mentors. I see how much I’ve changed just because I had Ms. Barnes as mine. I want to give more young people the chance to change, to grow and to take control of their futures, just like I did.
I still need a mentor myself, though. Things got very tough again a year and a half ago when my brother passed away. By then, Ms. Barnes had become like a second mother and family member. I depended on her heavily.
That’s what good mentors do: they help their mentee find the path toward a brighter future. A mentor should connect with their mentee on a deeper, more honest level than most young person/adult relationships. To be a great mentor, one should be able to talk easily with one’s mentee, understand them, and hold them accountable when they make missteps. Good mentors will support their mentees regardless of the missteps.
Communities In Schools just launched What We Are Made Of, a mosaic portrait series by artist Jason Mecier that tells my story and that of six other students from around the country.
Each mosaic portrait is assembled with objects from students’ lives that represent who they are and the services that helped them succeed.
Related: Giving students a say
The mosaic includes a flower from the corsage I wore to my high school’s prom. I was so excited. Ms. Barnes helped me get ready for the dance, making sure I had a dress, shoes and jewelry so I could feel beautiful and part of the celebration.
The bad times are there, too. The mosaic shows my brother’s teddy bear and his crucifix necklace — two things that I’ve kept to remind me of my brother. There’s also a map of New Orleans. I encourage you to explore our portraits, hear our stories, and consider how you can be the caring adult in a young person’s life.
When I doubt myself, Ms. Barnes is always there to motivate me. She holds me to a high standard because she knows I am capable of doing anything and everything I put my mind to. This makes me want to work harder just to make her proud.
You never know how one person can change someone’s life. For me, that one person is Ms. Barnes.
My’ Yelle Warner is a senior at Creekside High School in Atlanta, Georgia. On track to graduate this spring, she hopes to become a cardiologist.