Ten Questions with Community Lodgings Mentor Stephanie Hemmert
Stephanie Hemmert has been part of Community Lodgings’ girls’ mentoring program right from the beginning, and she’s here to stay! Read our Q&A below to find out why she’s been with us for so long, and who is her favorite Community Lodgings person (hint: that person said Stephanie is her favorite person. Besties!)
About six years – since the fall of 2011. I lived in Old Town then and went to an Alexandria Mentoring Partnership information session and, of all the organizations/programs who introduced themselves and were looking for volunteers, I liked Community Lodgings the best. I met a staff member, Antonio, who said their girls’ mentoring program was just beginning to form (the boys’ mentoring program had already begun the year before). I work fulltime and my position requires me to travel a fair amount. Because the group was just starting and was still flexible of when they would meet, it was perfect for me. The first mentor, Denise, had already started doing a couple of activities with the girls and then I joined the group in early 2012.
What attracted you to Community Lodgings instead of another mentoring-focused nonprofit?
I had just gotten married and my husband is Peruvian. I realized that a big percent of the kids and families in the Community Lodgings program are Latino and that was attractive to me since I had just married into that culture. I was just starting to learn about the Peruvian culture and I liked working with the Central and South American communities and learning about them.
Did mentoring the girls help you?
Definitely! I have learned so much from the girls and have a lot of admiration for them. They have a strong sense of self and are more confident and grounded in some ways than I ever felt when I was at their age. I have learned a lot about Central and South American family dynamics. It helps me obtain perspective and relate with my in-laws.
Why do you continue to be involved with the girls mentoring program?
I started because I was looking for some fulfillment. I had participated in some literacy tutoring after I graduated from law school for about a year and half, but had to stop at the time due to health issues. It was nice to find Community Lodgings and volunteer again. I am privileged to have the schooling I have and feel it is important to give back. No matter what kind of day I’m having, I feel better when coming to mentoring. I enjoy being with the girls and learning from them and the mentors. It’s rewarding when we come together as a team. When Christine (Suchy, another mentor) came on, it was so nice. She is a voice of reason and so diplomatic. When my second son was born, I took a few months off from coming to program and Christine stepped in to lead during that time, which I appreciated very much.
Everyone is there for the right reason and are committed to the girls. We’ve found that we are more helpful for the girls when we are on the same page and working together. We truly are a mentoring team – periodically we have our own “mentors only” meetings and we take turns leading our mentoring programs. We email each other and share if something is going on with the girls. We have 16 girls in the program now, our greatest number in the years of running it, and all of us mentors mentor all of the girls. That said, we always encourage any mentor to set up small group or individual outings with the girls.
How has program grown?
We started with about eight girls six years ago and this group of 16 is our largest ever. When we first started, it was pretty ad hoc. The meeting days were not consistent (which, I mentioned, was initially great for my schedule, but not great for the girls – communicating to them when and where we would meet was a constant challenge), and we had to coordinate driving the girls, Community Lodgings’ space availability, whether the girls were available…all kinds of things. We were also paying for a lot of the outings out of our own personal funds. After about a year or so we were offered to have a consistent meeting time and venue, which we took and this has helped a lot. We meet on Monday nights at Community Lodgings. Our programming is more structured too. We focus on inclusiveness and try to model inclusivity. Our meetings are a mix of teambuilding, educational, trust, community service, and we like to offer new adventures for the girls to experience that they may have not otherwise had the chance to, such as zip-lining or rock-climbing, or meeting a military woman whose job was to safely detonate explosives. You never know what may spark their interest. I always say that we try to spark “thirst” for them by introducing them to new things. Someone once told me that yes, you can lead a horse to water, no you can’t make the horse drink, BUT you can make it thirsty! I think this applies to mentoring young folks.
For community service, we have written cards to service members during the holidays and to sick kids in the hospital, discussing what is appropriate to write to a terminally ill child and deepening understanding of what empathy means. We have also prepared food at DC Central Kitchen.
What is important to you about Community Lodgings’ work?
I love what they do and believe in their mission of lifting families into sustainability. They teach skills to adults so they can take care of themselves and be proud about being self-sufficiency. They learn budgeting skills, how to get and hold jobs, and how to manage a family. It is all so important, and it is interesting to me how the after school program evolved from that and then the mentoring programs evolved from after that. Some mentees are from the transitional housing program and that is extra special.
What have you gotten out of this?
I have learned balance and that you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. We mentors mentor each other. We all go through our funks at different times and when that happens we help each other. I realize now that these funks come in waves. We do make an impact, just not always in the way we think. We may not always see impact right away; it may be years down the road. Sometimes you may never know. But one of the most important things is for the girls to be able to experience some consistency in their lives and we hope to provide that with mentoring.
We have periodically taken the girls to a dance fitness class called Kazaxé in Springfield. The owners are always incredibly nice about supporting us being able to bring the girls and the girls love it. One time, a few years ago, we drove the Community Lodgings van, inadvertently left the lights on, and when we came out after class, in the dark, the battery was dead. After some contemplating, and being a little worried about getting the girls back home, we found out that we did have jumper cables and one of our oldest girls said very confidently, with fortitude, “We can figure this out!” I loved that. I was pretty proud.
Who is your favorite Community Lodgings person and why?
One of the side benefits is becoming friends with Christine. She has been a mentor to me. I really appreciate getting to know her. I’ve learned a ton from her and have appreciated being able to bounce ideas and situations by her for perspective. Within the last year we both experienced losing a parent, too, to cancer, so that was one more thing we unfortunately shared. It’s been wonderful to work with her and get to know her.
Why would you recommend involvement with Community Lodgings to your friends?
Definitely, definitely, definitely! I periodically post about Community Lodgings on my Facebook page, and I would love for anyone who wants to volunteer with Community Lodgings to do so. There are so many ways to get involved. It’s not just mentoring or after school tutoring. A co-worker friend is into knitting and she is bringing her knitting friends and we are having a knitting night with the girls. It’s nice to be able to share these experiences with other folks. (So if anyone out there reading this has an idea for a program night that they would like to share with the girls, please contact us! We particularly love introducing the girls to strong women.)
I just want to say how grateful I am to Community Lodgings for offering this mentoring program for the girls and for also giving me the opportunity to be a mentor for the program. Monday nights are one of my favorite times of the week.