Friday, August 6, 2010

The Journey of a Lifetime

Summer is the season for travel.  Lots of us have listened to the travel stories of friends and family and nothing sells a destination like an enthusiastic traveler who has just returned from an incredible journey. 

I’d like to introduce you to someone still on the journey of a lifetime with Infinite Family.  John Loehrer, who lives with his wife and baby in Gresham, Oregon, has traveled virtually to the orphanages of Refilwe and Nkosi’s Haven each week as a Video Mentor since March, 2009.  He has had the opportunity to mentor 2 different boys, Lawrence, a 13 year old, and Tshidiso, a 14 year old, via Infinite Family’s unique internet platform and video conferencing desktop. 

Here’s how John describes his “journey of a lifetime”!

How has your understanding of Africa or African culture changed since becoming a Video Mentor with Infinite Family?

When you think of Africa you tend only to think of those sad commercials on TV.  Images of starving children.  Words across the screen saying 'PLEASE HELP'.  Now when I think of Africa, I think of smiling faces.  Of hope. Kids are kids first, ya know?  They are full of excitement.  Full of possibility.

I've had the chance to work with two different kids so far.  Each personality has been so different from the other.  It messes up any real stereotypes I wanted to make about African culture.

Lawrence loves Jay-Z.   He loves online games, especially kung-fu or karate games.  In a few days he was beating me at my own favorite games.  He likes to chatter away as he plays, keeping up the banter.  Some people shout at the screen when they watch movies.  Lawrence talks to the characters in the game, keeping them motivated.  Sometimes he sings too.  Very funny.  Adorable.

Tshidiso is more analytical.  The first day I met with him he was trying to trip me up on a math problem he had solved in school.  He got this little grin on his face when I struggled for a second to come up with the answer.  We were discussing the Fibonacci sequence the other day and he immediately picked up on the pattern just by looking at the sequence of numbers.  He is so smart!

I don't know how well I could answer in-depth questions about African culture though.  Lawrence told me a little bit about his trip to Nelson Mandela Square and the big statue there.  But we usually just talk about day-to-day life.  What's going on in school, stuff like that.

I do know a lot of Bafana Bafana soccer team players though!  The Fifa World Cup was just a little while ago.  Tshidiso drilled me on that stuff.  Before the matches, he told me all about the players on the South African team.  His favorite player is Teko Modise.  I felt like I was studying for final exams every time because he would always quiz me about the players.

How would you describe your experience as an Infinite Family Video Mentor to someone who may hesitate to volunteer with because of their fear of a child being too needy or the experience being depressing?

I was really nervous going into it that it would be hard to really connect with my Net Buddy.  Or that there would be nothing to talk about.  I am not a psychologist.  What do I know about being a mentor? But I found out that most of what I was worrying about didn't even matter.

I was putting too much pressure on myself to try to build a relationship with a kid right away.  It takes time.  Lots of little steps.  Play some games.  Watch some videos.  Listen to what happened in their day. It's not too hard.  Most of the time it is all jokes and games.  Maybe that's because that's how I tend to relate to my younger family members.

I had to learn to lower my expectations.  That sounds like a bad thing but it's not.  I expected to have all these deep meaningful conversations with my Net Buddy.  Maybe the time will come when we get to that point.  But I think sharing in the little stuff is just as important.  I am there to validate his life.  To show him he is important to me in whatever way I can.  If that means taking the time to play a game or joke around with him, I can do that.

Maybe someone else with a different personality than me is really great at getting a kid to open up and share their inner struggles and turmoil.  That's not me.  I like to laugh.  What I guess I'm saying is that having a Net Buddy is like having a friend much like any other friend you'd have.  Get to know them. Share your life.  They share theirs.  Take it from there.  I just try to always be a positive influence. Always be encouraging and uplifting.  No need to try to be a grief counselor or anything like that.

Neither of my Net Buddies really ever wanted to talk about their parents with me.  That's fine.  I respect their privacy.  That's their personal life.  If they bring it up, fine.  If they want to talk about World Cup Soccer or a music video, that's fine too.  If they want to try to school me in Fancy Pants Adventure, bring it on!
What do you think is the biggest gift you have received in your video mentoring relationship?  Conversely, what would you say is the biggest gift you have given to your Net Buddy by being a Video Mentor?
The biggest gift is probably humility.  You could call it embarrassment, I guess.  But humility sounds nicer.  One day Tshidiso was talking to me and he was interrupted by a friend who came into the lab and started talking to him in another language.

When the friend left I asked Tshidiso what language was that? Sesotho?

He said, 'No ... Zulu.'

I asked him how many languages he spoke.

'Five. How many do you speak?'

I had to admit I only speak English.  It was a very humbling experience.  It made me realize in that instant that he had as much to teach me as I had to teach him.  Life dealt us very different cards to play, but one hand is not necessarily better.

 Maybe I won't ever really know what my impact will be on my Net Buddy's life.   At the very least, I know Lawrence can take on anyone in Electric Man 2.   And Tshidiso has learned a whole library of internet phrases and emoticons for instant messaging and texting.  But I hope it is much more than that.  I hope they are seeing possibilities far beyond what they initially imagined for themselves.

What keeps you coming back each week?

I started Infinite Family because I wanted to give something back to the world.  I've been given so many opportunities, you know?  But I come back each week because it's fun.  My Net Buddy is a riot. The technology doesn't always work the way we want it too.  But we always have a good time.

For at least a few minutes out of my week, I know I am doing something that matters.  And maybe when Lawrence becomes a world leader or Tshidiso solves the next world energy crisis, I can be there to take all the credit.

Any other comments you'd like to make?  Feel free!!

Video mentoring is like the first time off of a high dive.  You just have to experience it to know what it is like.  The scariest part is actually the anticipation before you jump in.  Just do it already!

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