My Mentees Teach Me

For Nurit Kotick, long-time Pasadena resident, wife, mother, mentor volunteer and board member at nonprofit Hillsides, mentoring youth has changed her life. Before learning about the foster care system and joining Hillsides Youth Moving On Program, Nurit was a successful businesswoman for 20 years and busy mother of two. Since then, Nurit has mentored six Los Angeles youth, many of who have gone on to become independent adults. In her own words, Nurit shares her inspirational journey of falling into mentoring after motherhood, and how her mentoring has helped young adults open up, trust again and find purpose.

“I am 62 years old and was born in Israel. My father is a Holocaust survivor from Poland and my mother is from Egypt. We migrated to Chicago, Illinois when I was five years old. I have two grown children, ages 33 and 30. After graduating from Metropolitan Business School, I moved to Los Angeles.

After my children graduated from high school, they attended college in the Midwest. I missed them terribly and was searching for a volunteer opportunity interacting with youth who are on the cusp of being an adult, which, in my opinion, is the most vulnerable and where I feel has the most impact.

At the time, I was coincidentally reading a book called “Hope’s Boy” by Andrew Bridge, about children who have aged out of foster care. I was compassionate and sympathetic to youth who have aged out of foster care and left to their own devices to navigate life. Fortunate enough to have family support in my life, I could not imagine how hard it might have been had I not had that. Growing up is challenging enough in navigating your place in life, and without guidance is unfathomable.

I researched some local transitional housing organizations in the Los Angeles area and when I toured Hillsides, I was convinced in my decision to volunteer there. It has an excellent reputation in the community for placing a high priority on children’s health and well-being and I joined Hillsides Youth Moving On (YMO), a transitional housing program as a Mentor Volunteer and have been there ever since.

Over the past seven years, I’ve worked with many young people from all different walks of life.

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At first, I didn’t know what to expect from foster youth. I didn’t know if I was going to get a negative ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. But I was pleasantly surprised that the youth are hungry for guidance, learning about new relationships and getting practical advice.

Most of them don’t have parents in their lives, so I feel more like a role model. Having been married for a long time, they feel they can come to me to discuss how to maintain a healthy long-term relationship, how to engage with someone who doesn’t think the same way you do and how to demand respect. And since I’ve owned my own business, some of the youth will ask me what they need to do to get started.

One young 19-year-old man I mentor now, who recently joined the Hillsides YMO program from Juvenile Court, was searching for employment when we first met. Broadly built and over 6’ tall, he seemed confident. Yet when he and I would get together and practice his interviewing skills, his handshake was soft, loose and undemonstrative. After talking with him about the typical questions to ask and how to respond in a clear and concise manner, we would role play the approach, introduction and closing statements of an interview. I would carefully explain different kinds of handshakes and how the recipient may perceive it. Turns out, this young man felt his presence was intimidating and he didn’t want to start the interview with the interviewer being nervous. After we discussed the value of a good handshake, he would practice it with himself whenever we got together and ultimately landed a job.

Another time when I seeing a movie in Pasadena with two young men I mentor, they showed me loyalty and how protective they are of me in one simple gesture. After exiting the theatre, there were three older men directly ahead of me sitting on a ledge right outside the movie theatre. They started to heckle me about being Caucasian and walking with two young African American men. However, the two young men I mentored flanked me as we walked down the street, each one moving to my left and right side to block any possible aggressive attempt as we passed. It wasn’t until later on that evening that I realized how one small quick gesture can say everything about loyalty.

One evening, I took one young man I mentor to California Pizza Kitchen. He was homeless and living on the streets of LA for several months before joining the YMO at age 21. The youth are always hungry, and I feel it’s my responsibility to expose them to different cuisines, different museums and fun, low-key entertainment. So I wanted to take my mentee to an Italian pizza restaurant to expose him to an international culture and Italian cuisine. At the restaurant, he sat and looked at the menu for quite some time. The waitress would come over and ask if we were ready to order, and if I was ok. I think the waitress thought that I might be in danger in the company of this tall, young African American man. I just thought this young man was simply unable to make up his mind and not ready to order his meal. But that wasn’t the case at all. This young man had never ordered from a menu before and relied on the pictures to order. By the end of our meal, I taught him how to read and order from a basic menu.

I have seen an appreciation and implementation of honesty from the foster youth I’ve mentored. I sense that some of the youth may tell me what I want to hear, not what is reality, but with lots of time investment, continuity and consistency, we’ve been able to develop a relationship built on trust.

I’ve learned so much by getting involved with the youth at Hillsides YMO Program. Prior to getting involved, I wasn’t patient with people who didn’t put forth effort in their life or jobs. When I was raising my family, I didn’t have time to mentor.

Since my children left for college, mentoring youth has given me a work/life balance and been rewarding. I’ve become more patient, tolerant and compassionate with those youth with learning disabilities. I’ve also come to understand that some youth don’t know how to get motivated. I’m constantly reminded every day that even though the youth are 18-26 years of age, that’s their chronological age, not emotional age. This is where interacting with the youth has taught me patience and grace.