People helping people

Mentoring kids in Austin, Texas. (Photo provided — Melinda Walton)

The first time I ever heard of mentoring was from my mom.

I was young and she was an elementary school teacher. She had a new student who had significant struggles at home. Mom became her mentor. She helped the girl meet classmates, form friendships, get to know her way around and even met her grandmother. Over time, my mom helped her mentee by listening to and discussing ideas on what directions to go for high school and beyond. I knew the girl was happy and fit in, and I know the lasting friendship that developed made my mom feel good.

Fresh out of college and living in Austin, Texas, I saw an ad in the classifieds looking for volunteer mentors for elementary students on the southeast side of the city. I called and signed up. The program leader stressed the importance of showing up. On time. Same day every week, and eat lunch with your mentee. We were not to bring lunch or gifts. “Your mentee will count on you and look forward to your visit. It’s important for the child to feel like there’s an adult in the outside community who cares about them and knows them.”

I met with that fourth-grade girl for two years. I ate school lunches, and learned what a Frito Pie is. Who knew school lunches had changed so much since my own school years?! I learned a lot, like the day she told me, “I walked the line this weekend.” It meant she had joined a gang. I asked if her mom knew. She didn’t. I knew she loved and respected her mom, so I gently suggested she tell her mom.

A few months into the program, I got the school’s, and her mom’s, permission to bring her and her younger brother out to the airport and show them around the small general aviation planes. They loved sitting in the little planes pretending to be pilots. When I moved away, I sent a postcard now and then. She never replied. I looked her up years later and exchanged a few messages. She was in college!

I had mentors of my own beginning around that time: An old WWII veteran and Federal Aviation Administration pilot examiner who I used to fly with, and who I sent my students to for their private pilot checkrides. The relaxed and easygoing conversations and flights with each of them made a lasting impression, not just on my career path, but on life philosophies.

At my first airline, ages ago, during your probationary first year every captain you flew with filled out an evaluation form on how you were doing. In a way, that was mentoring, because the forms were to be discussed as it was filled out, then turned in, to the chief pilot. The conversations were helpful, covering not only what needed work, but where you were doing well. At the end of probation, you met with the chief pilot for a final review, the stack of evaluations was discussed, then handed over to you. I still have them.

At my most recent airline, mentoring as a strategy in developing better crews, is something the airline was newly embracing. Initially, new hires there could request a mentor — a more senior pilot to ask questions of, someone who can show you the ropes regarding various procedures related to scheduling, vacation bidding, company insurance, etcetera — things you need to know, in addition to doing the job, and flying the plane. Later, the program expanded and all new hire pilots were assigned mentors. Newly upgraded captains were also assigned captain mentors. As you advanced, you could join the program and become a mentor. In an industry that needs its people in top mental shape every day, mentor programs are invaluable.

It’s great to have someone to ask stupid questions, with no fear of your job being in jeopardy, or being laughed at. Someone with your best interests in mind, who has your back. It made being a newbie not so bad. You know your job, but, when is open enrollment, how do we bid for a new domicile, and what’s the scoop on the new planes being delivered? Mentoring enhances a culture of interacting in positive ways, both in helping and in Iearning.

There are many ways to get involved in mentoring. Some I’ve participated in, like hosting a Fresh Air kid, are wonderful. There are even online mentoring programs. I’ve mentored many young women pilots over the past 10 years. I took a young woman on a sightseeing flight out of Lake Placid 10 years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch. She went on to pursue a career in flying.

More recently, I was talking with a new friend in the medical profession, and the subject of mentoring came up. We were discussing something we’d both read about — the mental wellbeing of healthcare workers. It described how stressful the job is, even when not facing a worldwide pandemic — particularly for new med school graduates in residency. The descriptions of stress, sleep deprivation, isolation — the sense of having no one to talk to or confide in, seemed unbelievable. How can it be that the very people we look to to care for us, have so little structure supporting their own needs?

In the aviation industry, there’s always someone to talk with. Coworkers are a team, and are expected to problem solve and troubleshoot as a crew. Union work rules, company policies all require collaboration. It’s woven into training from day one. “Better together” is practically a mantra.

So when I read of the pressure medical residents operate under, and even how they can be ridiculed for not knowing an answer instantly, I was astonished at the “every man for themselves” mentality. It seems a toxic work environment, at best, and at worst, a recipe for disaster. Healthcare workers need to not only be thanked but helped in every way possible. We need them to be well too.

“We should all mentor and be mentored — up, down, and laterally,” I said. She agreed. When learning we need to not only talk to someone who’s already been through it, but we need peers to talk with who are in our same position. We can support each other, rally together to face the challenges, and as we become more assured, confident, and experienced, we can, in turn, be the ones who give a helping hand to the new people coming up. While those we help benefit greatly, it helps the mentor just as much, keeping them fresh — not only with what’s new in the job, but with who is new on the team.

This is not just for the work world. This works throughout life. Parents helping kids. Neighbors helping neighbors. Communities uniting. This is how we best get through anything. People helping people. That’s really what it’s all about isn’t it?


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