Mentoring:  Making a Difference in the Lives of Virginia’s Children by Judge Randolph A. Beales

It is both an interesting and fun place to be.  And, when you look around, there are all kinds of lawyers there -- prosecutors, public defenders, solo practitioners, lawyers from large firms and small firms (as well as paralegals and legal secretaries, too) and from some of the area's oldest law firms.  There are also businessmen and some stay-at-home moms, too -- and people from numerous occupations.  But a large number of the adults who are in this attractive elementary school just off the Downtown Expressway near downtown, inner city Richmond are lawyers (or retired lawyers), who come to this school because they have agreed to mentor a child between the first and fifth grades.
 
The school makes the mentors feel very welcome and valued, but no one makes you feel better than the boy or girl who is looking for you when 1:00 rolls around on the first and third Fridays of the month during most of the school year.  
 
For the last ten school years I have mentored a boy at this school (or at one point in the middle school to which my student had graduated).  By mentoring, I mean visiting with this boy, helping him with his schoolwork, talking with him about what he wants to talk about -- for example, who is the better team -- the Redskins or the Cowboys (I am truly chagrined at how many kids say the Cowboys!), talking about what he is doing this coming weekend, talking about what he wants to be when he grows up, explaining how being a judge is actually a pretty enjoyable and rewarding job where, despite what you see on television, you really are not “mean” to people, and discussing the controversial question of who truly is the best WWF wrestler (and being corrected that it is now the WWE and how adults like me are just way behind the times!).
 
I have two sons and three daughters of my own, and I know someone has got to be saying, "Why is he taking on another kid?!"  However, in all honesty, I think I get more out of this relationship than my "mentee" does (Just ask the other mentors why ...).  I started going to Clark Springs Elementary School when I was the Chief Deputy Attorney General of Virginia and the Attorney General's Office had made a real effort to "adopt" this school.  I kept going when I was Attorney General, as did many of the staff in that office (lawyers and nonlawyers), and a number of them still go today -- a decade later.  My first student there has grown up and finished high school and moved away.  Two of the other boys that I’ve mentored have finished elementary school and moved on to middle school and beyond.  When I practiced law at Christian & Barton, my fellow partners reacted very favorably to my suggestion that our firm also sort of "adopt" this same school and get involved there.  Not only did a number of the lawyers (including some of my fellow partners) agree to mentor a child but some of the paralegals and legal secretaries volunteered to do so as well, and the firm was very supportive of allowing them to do it.  I have been on the Court of Appeals almost five years now, and when I go to Clark Springs, I see that Christian & Barton is still well-represented there.
 
I also see Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring there and a number of his legal staff, and lawyers from various state agencies.  And I am not the only judge either ....  Spending an hour or so on a Friday helping a boy or girl learn to read or to add, subtract, multiply, and divide -- or to learn about our country's history or to talk about careers that these boys and girls might not have thought were a possibility for them -- is a great way to spend a long lunch hour on a Friday.  And I think on most Fridays both students and mentors (called "lunch buddies") head back to class (or, in our case, leave the school grounds to go back to work) with more of a spring in their step.  I have also attended and participated in a number of awards ceremonies there to support the child I am mentoring.  Since I am now a judge, the school has sometimes asked me to swear in the newly elected student government officers in what is a beautiful ceremony – including administering the oath of office several years ago to the student I was then mentoring as he became the Vice President of the student body.  I have enjoyed often getting to know these boys’ families (their mothers, fathers, and grandparents – and sometimes their little brothers and sisters of whom they are so proud).
 
All of us have had mentors in our lives -- people who have helped us achieve things in life that might well not have been possible without them ....  This program of helping our young people, especially those who perhaps come from a background without some of the advantages some of the rest of us have had, is a wonderful way of giving back to help others -- and showing our gratitude to honor those who have helped us  
 
I was inspired to be a mentor by several people but especially by someone close to home ....  Well before many people were talking about mentoring as a way to try to match caring adult role models with children, some people would (in the words of the Nike commercial) "just do it."  My mother was a prime example.  My friends loved to come to our house when I was growing up because my mother made them feel so welcome and so good about themselves.  She also tried to look out for children who she could see were having a hard time.   After I had become an adult (and was already a lawyer), I remember that she became very concerned about a little girl who lived out in the country and whose mother was very ill and quite poor.  Now, keep in mind all of us lived in the small towns and beautiful countryside of rural Southside Virginia, and certainly none of us were financially well-to-do (although we were blessed in so many ways to live and grow up in that beautiful part of the world that my grandfather always referred to as "God's country").  However, this little girl was the youngest in a family that was truly hurting and quite poor.  Then tragically her mother died, and the little girl's grandmother became her guardian, but, then, shortly afterwards she became ill and passed away, too.  And this wonderful little girl (whose father was basically out of the picture) at age eight or nine had to be reared by her older brothers, who loved her and were hard-working young guys with good intentions, but did not know a lot about how to raise a girl of that age.  Well, my mother had known her grandmother but actually did not know this little girl very well -- and probably never would have called herself a “mentor” to her, but that's what she did for this girl I will call "Jean" (not her real name).   

Even though Mother was then in her mid-70s, she decided (with the encouragement of Jean’s grandmother and family) to help look out for Jean.  She would go and take Jean to buy clothes for school, try to make sure she had healthy food to eat at home, take her out to eat for fun and to have long talks (so, as Mother put it, a young lady will feel confident and comfortable eating in a restaurant), and just make sure she was getting the proper care that she needed at home and also at school.  Mother had once been a schoolteacher who had taught both English and what was then called "Home Economics."  She tried to help Jean with her schoolwork, I think, and wanted to make sure this sweet little girl got a good education.  As Jean became a teenager, Mother even worried a little (probably like most parents) about whether some of the clothes Jean wanted to buy were appropriate (i.e., warm enough, attractive, but still acceptable attire) for a teenage girl.  Mother once said that she didn’t want to be the one who bought clothes for Jean to wear that school officials might then declare to be inappropriate attire!
 
Therefore, like many actual mothers and daughters, they had to reach some compromises on the clothing purchased, but, regardless, Mother stayed in close touch with and mentored Jean until she finished high school and moved away – by which time Mother was well into her mid-80s.  From time to time Jean would send Mother a card, and Mother would write her back and congratulate and praise her on her accomplishments in life.  Mother is now 97, and she and Jean, who is married with her own family (and living in another state), still stay in touch with each other.  Mother is way too modest ever to claim that she may have helped this young woman have a life that she might not have had otherwise.  However, I think Mother knows in her heart that her mentoring (or whatever Mother would call it) had quite an impact on Jean's life.  
 
Some people are just naturals at this -- like my mother (of whom you can see I am justifiably proud), but others need training to do well what their heart tells them that they would like to do.  There are nonprofit organizations like the Virginia Mentoring Partnership that help match mentors to young people and to schools that need them -- and help train new mentors to serve in this important role in the best way possible.  Whether in an inner city school or in the countryside or in the suburbs, many Virginians, including a lot of members of the bar, are making a difference in the lives of children they otherwise might never even meet -- let alone really get to know well.  I know I have been blessed by doing it, and I know, at 97, Mother -- without having any program to get her involved in mentoring as we do today -- fondly remembers her time of being a mentor ... long after most people would have been retired.  
 
In short, it is never too late to be a mentor and to make a real difference in a child's life ... and, for that matter, in your own.  Lawyers (as well as many nonlawyers) across Virginia are showing more and more children that there is yet one more adult out there who truly cares about them -- and their future.  As Jon Huddleston would say, that is just one more example of the good being done by the members of our profession (and Virginians from all walks of life) here in our Commonwealth.

© 2010 Randolph A. Beales
 
Randolph A. Beales is a Judge on the Virginia Court of Appeals, to which he was elected by the Virginia General Assembly in March, 2006.  Before his service on the Court of Appeals, he was a partner at the law firm of Christian & Barton, LLP, and, prior to that he served in the Attorney General's Office -- first as the Chief Deputy Attorney General of Virginia from 1998 to 2001 and then as the 41st Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia from 2001 to 2002.  Judge Beales is married to Dr. Julie Leftwich Beales, a physician, and they have five children.  He has been active in the community on behalf of mentoring and, over the years, on behalf of numerous other charitable activities, such as serving on the Board of Children's Hospital of Richmond, as Chairman of the Administrative Law Section of the Virginia Bar Association, as Chairman of the Education Committee of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, and as Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Center for Rural Virginia.

Updated: Nov 01, 2010