FORT BLISS, Texas – Working with children can be tough, but working with teenagers can be even tougher. For someone with zero experience with children altogether, working with teenagers can be overwhelming.
Teenagers and a total lack of experience were the hurdles that Yasmin Ramirez, a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Texas El Paso, overcame when she volunteered as a mentor June through November this year for a Boys and Girls Clubs mentoring program at the Milam Youth Activity Center, Fort Bliss, Texas.
“A lot of people say they want to volunteer, but it takes a heck of a person to keep coming back day to day and to truly enjoy spending time with teenagers,” said Susan Goss, the program director for the Milam Youth Activity Center. “Teenagers can better sense whether you are being sincere or not than younger children can. If they think you aren’t genuine, they will either eat you up or just ignore you altogether.”
Ramirez, an El Paso, Texas, native, said her first time speaking in front of the children at the teen center was one of the most terrifying moments of her life; the whole time she was speaking, she was just hoping that at least one of the teenagers would like her.
“All the mentors stood up there and told the kids about who we were and what we wanted to do with the program,” said Ramirez. “After that, we just sat back and let them come to us. It was really important to not push the kids to get involved. If I had to pull them to get involved, it wouldn’t have been fun for any of us and if kids aren’t having fun, they won’t show back up to spend time with you.”
In addition to the hurdles Ramirez already faced being an inexperienced mentor working with teenagers, the Milam Mentoring Program has the added stress of working solely with military children and the issues that make them unique compared to other children.
Military children endure the stress of moving every two to three years as well as living with the constant risk of having a parent leave for months at a time due to training or combat deployments. However, Ramirez said she believes this is an issue that she is more than equipped to handle.
Ramirez said growing up in El Paso she had many friends whose parents were stationed at Fort Bliss and that was able see firsthand the struggles they would go through from having to move from base to base.
“I felt like maybe I could make a little bit more of an impact because they have so few steadies in their life at that age compared to other children,” said Ramirez. “I really felt I could help provide them with a constant in their lives.”
“Working with military kids is really interesting because they tend to be more worldly,” said Ramirez. “They move and travel a lot. Most of these kids have seen more of the world than I have. It’s really interesting to hear them tell stories about all the places they have been and all the things they have seen.”
Ramirez’s positive outlook toward the issues that military children deal with caught the attention of Arturo Jaime, Chief Professional Officer for the Boys and Girls Clubs of El Paso.
“I believe Yasmin is a mentor at heart,” said Jaime. “She is a writer with a lot of creative energy and she wants to help others develop their own sense of creativity, both in the class at the university where she teaches and as a mentor at the youth activity center.”
Jaime, who was part of the group that picked Ramirez to work with the military based mentorship program, added that Yasmin will always be welcomed back as a mentor because she has traits desirable in a mentor. Like her ability to develop close relationships with young people, which cause the children to look forward to meeting with her every week.
“Mrs. Yasmin is very approachable,” said Mercedés Briddell, a high school senior mentored by Ramirez. “She makes you feel like you could talk to her about anything.”
Briddell, age 17, went on to say Ramirez, helped her open up a lot compared to her previous shy self and helped her feel more confident with who she is and how people see her.
Ramirez was one of many mentors recruited from UTEP because they are able to give teenagers thinking about going to college a chance to meet and develop relationships with people who are currently attending college.
She first attended college at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology before starting a corporate career with a major retail company.
Ramirez started working for the retailer to earn extra money while attending college before turning it into a career after graduation – a corporate career that lasted five years in the Dallas area.
“I just got tired of living the corporate lifestyle,” said Ramirez. “It wasn’t making me happy; I quit my job and went back to school to study creative writing. I’m so glad that I did – writing has always been my passion.”
In the fall of 2010, Ramirez moved back to her hometown and enrolled in a graduate program with UTEP. As part of her degree plan she is required to log volunteer time, but she describes her mentoring time as a positive experience in which she receives more than she puts in and that she is always more than happy to do it.
“I have shown up to a meeting grumpy just because I have too much other stuff on my mind, but after I start talking to the kids, I tell myself, ‘oh I will just worry about that later,’ and for those few hours I spend with them, they take away all my stress,” said Ramirez. “It makes the time I spend with them not work but fun. So much fun that it’s hard for me to know that the program is ending.”
Ramirez enjoyed her time in the program so much that she started her own mentorship program to help teenagers interested in creative writing. So far she has three children from the Milam Mentorship Program and they meet every Saturday at the Glasbox Studio located near downtown El Paso.
“The writing program is great,” said Briddell. “Mrs. Yasmin brings in an image and then you write your own story about what you see in it or what it makes you think about. She has helped me learn how to write in so much more detail and I really appreciate her for that.”
The writing program is named the “Forword Project.” For information on how to enroll your teenager please email Ramirez at email@example.com.
For information about getting involved with the Boys and Girls Clubs of El Paso dial 915-532-7410 or visit www.bgcelpaso.org.
This story is part four of a four part series highlighting mentors of children in the Fort Bliss community.