A youth mentor is never off duty.
That’s a lesson Jameyia Richardson learned quickly when, at 20 years old, she signed up to mentor young people at WVSU Extension Service’s annual Health, Sciences and Technology Academy (HSTA) Forensic Summer Institute. The weeklong, residential 4-H camp uses a crime scene investigation scenario to teach forensic science to teens.
“Kids are always watching you,” she says with a laugh. “They won’t let you get by with anything.”
Barely out of her teens herself that first summer as a mentor, the role of “role model” was one Jameyia never anticipated playing.
“I was an English major,” she says. “I knew nothing about science.” But she saw the camp as a learning opportunity not only for the students but also for herself.
“One of our tasks was to get the kids up in the morning and ready for the day’s activities, then we would have some free time,” she says. “But I went to class with them, participated and learned, too. I showed interest, which made them show interest. It was the best decision I ever made.”
Soon she discovered her behavior was having an effect. The kids were approaching her during off hours to continue discussing what they’d learned in class.
“People want to feel what they’re doing is important,” she says of her interaction with campers, “and when you get involved as a mentor, it does that for them.”
As she learned with the students, she was careful to ensure her authority as a mentor was not compromised – something quick-witted teens can often see right through.
“When you are a mentor, there is a role model barrier,” she says. “I would tell them, ‘I’m not your friend, but nobody said we can’t have some fun, because I’m a big kid, too.’”
So as she dealt with the common issues of gossip, quarrels and hygiene problems among the adolescent campers, Jameyia was also bettering herself and her own skills in people management, learning to control a group, exhibit leadership tendencies and foster a sense of inclusion among all the teens.
“There’s always that one kid in the corner who doesn’t talk a lot and doesn’t participate as much,” she says. “So I would bring him into the group during social activities, make him the center of attention, and teach these kids that they all have things in common with one another, even when they think they don’t.”
Although her early motivation for getting involved in WVSU 4-H was purely personal (“I needed the money,” she says), that first summer as a HSTA mentor stuck with her and brought her back for more. She has mentored with various 4-H camps almost every summer since.
Now 25, Jameyia is a WVSU graduate with her B.A. in English and is eyeing possibilities both within and beyond West Virginia. She is finding that being a mentor is not only a job but a way of life.
“I was at the pool and was approached by a former camper,” she says. “He saw me the same way he saw me at camp: as a role model. So I’m always sure to present myself appropriately and professionally, whether it’s at my job, at the pool or on social media.”
In fact, a sense of pride, class and professionalism is one she has attempted to instill in several of the teens she’s helped, especially girls.
“I’ll admit, girls are often worse than boys. I see them posting things on social media and ask them, ‘Is this how you want to present yourself? Is this the woman you want people to see you as?’ And they get it.”
Camp organizers were quick to realize that Jameyia also “got it.”
“She is the epitome of a true mentor,” says Kelli Batch, WVSU’s assistant director for 4-H. “I saw the potential when she first came to us, and she dove into the role whole-heartedly. Being in charge of 100 teenagers was a real life lesson that allowed her to grow up quickly. Now she’s this helpful, honest and caring professional.”
Jameyia isn’t quite finished with WVSU Extension Service. Should her career search keep her in the area, she’s hoping to return to camp next summer to not only mentor a new group of teens but also help train the next crop of youth mentors.
Because, if your mentor switch is never turned off, you may as well put it to good use.