Throughout my life, I have mentored children, teachers and beginning administrators starting a new career. I have been mentored and mentored people in self-help groups trying to get sober and I have worked hard to give back and help individuals improve their lives.
With the publication of my book, Where the Water Meets the Sand, and for the past few years, I have been working to encourage whole communities to break the stigma of mental illness and commit financially to providing quality health care for those who suffer. Through my story, I’m working to mentor others and inspire action for them to seek help.
I’ll never forget one of my very first mentors when I was a teenager. She set a strong example for me that I have carried always.
As an eighth grader, I began to rebel against Mother’s rules and blow off school assignments. I was rude and sullen to my teachers.
I developed the habit of hanging out after school on the steps of my junior high school waiting for Mother to finish her work preparing her classroom for the next day. Less than two blocks over was a popular hamburger joint. Sometimes I’d walk over and order fries and a Coke. If I was broke, I’d just sit with the other kids waiting for my ride.
Like clockwork an old woman who lived alone in a rickety old house two doors down and caddy corner from the school came outside to feed her chickens that ran loose inside the metal fence around her property. I nicknamed her “Chicken Lady.”
We’d make up scary stories about her like the old witch in the story of Hansel and Gretel. One afternoon, I offered a wager for an order of fries and a Coke if I went into “Chicken Lady’s” house and stayed for a bit. In an instant, my bet was accepted.
As I opened the squeaky metal gate, I focused on “Chicken Lady’s” front porch. The yard was full of knee high weeds, chickens that scattered as I walked into the yard and flowers, some were irises. I was on the porch in minutes. When I knocked on the door, it opened a crack and a tiny old lady peered out.
“If I come in for a few minutes, I’ll win French fries and a Coke,” I blurted out.
“Come on in,” she replied in a soft voice. “Have a seat.”
The room was furnished with two high backed velvet chairs and a small lamp table in between as well as seta.
“My name’s Tyra Decker,” I said.
“Oh, you must be Cliff Decker’s daughter,” she replied.
“You knew my dad?” I responded with amazement.
“My husband and I bought a car from him.”
I was hooked.
“Would you like some tea and cookies?” she ask.
I nodded yes. Mesmerized.
“I’m Mrs. Martin,” she said as she left me sitting in one of the high back chairs and returned before long carrying a tray with hot tea served in china cups and a plate of vanilla wafer cookies.
She continued her story about her and her husband buying a car from daddy and how her husband said Cliff Decker was an honest man and he wouldn’t think of buying a car from anyone else. “My husband’s gone now and it’s just me and the chickens.”
“I need to go now,” I said, thinking the kids across the street would think I’d been pushed into the oven.
“May I come back sometime?” interested in what else Mrs. Martin could tell me about daddy and curious about this old lady. I had grandmothers, but even they were not this old.
I visited Mrs. Martin through the rest of the year. She told me stories of how her family settled in West Texas and about circuit rider preachers who traveled from community to community for Sunday services. She told stories of growing up as a little girl on the prairie. I looked forward to the afternoons I could stop by and took small gifts to her.
Mrs. Martin’s house was safe. She encouraged me and always had time for me. She was my non-judgmental oldest friend. In retrospect, I realize she was one of the first adults I confided in as a troubled teenager. She gave me hope, treated me with dignity as if I was not hopeless and ruined because my grades were failing.
I still had problems after my time with Mrs. Martin, but I held a place in my heart for her. I knew someone besides my family had loved me. She didn’t have to, and when I was with her, I felt safe and I never forgot it.
When she died, her niece called my mother and asked if I would like anything from her house to remember her by. I chose a 1929 Saturday Evening Post. Through the years, the Post faded, but my memory of Mrs. Martin never has.
I’ve had wonderful lifelong examples of how much mentors matter. They change lives and instill hope.
For great resources about mentoring, visit Mentoring.org.