Heeding the Call: Mentoring our Youth

  • By:  Emily Baine
Nakisha Harris inspires girls to reach new heights. Nakisha Harris inspires girls to reach new heights.

A victim of childhood sexual abuse, Veronica Thomas used to have nightmares every other night. Therapy didn’t help. After years of struggling, the petite woman with a wide smile, found a sense of purpose, helping and mentoring others to gain confidence and control. She became a survivor, not a victim and heeded a calling from above to help others achieve the same transition.

Nakisha Harris is a passionate, driven leader. Guided by the values and influence of her family, she successfully overcame the challenges of being a teenage mother. Fueled by her own experiences, Nakisha is on a mission to empower young women in need of a role model.

Mary Midyette knows about relationship building. As Team Up Leader at the Up Center, she connects dedicated adults looking to make a difference with children in need of a caring, responsible figure in their lives. Mary has witnessed firsthand the personal growth and life-long bonds that result from mentoring.

Mentoring is not a clinical process with a clear beginning and ending. Effective mentoring is a commitment that results in rich growth, empowerment, and meaningful relationships for those involved. Veronica, Nakisha, and Mary bear witness to its success.

SURVIVING TOGETHER
Veronica Thomas has a warm, honest personality that envelops you like a cherished friend. She has become a friend, guide, and supporter to many. Having had to weather the repercussions of childhood sexual abuse, she didn’t always have the same confidence she has now. Shame haunted her. Triggers—like a tree—reminded her of her childhood and would push her back into dark memories.

Reluctant at first, Veronica finally gave into the advice of a dear friend who encouraged her to write a book about her experience. Reliving painful memories proved to be one of the most difficult things she had ever done. But the result, Visions from the Past: A True Story, became one of the greatest things she ever accomplished. Veronica realized she didn’t have to remain a victim any longer. As she wrote, she began to understand that sharing her story and letting people know that they’re not alone could have a profound effect.    

Inspiration came to her one afternoon while resting in her car during her lunch hour: a voice that spoke to her, whispering the name SNV—Survivors Not Victims.

“If someone else had been sitting out there watching, they would have thought I was crazy,” Veronica recalled. “I looked out my window and up at the sky, and I was like, ‘Are you trying to tell me something?’”

Her experience resulted in the 2007 founding of SNV, Inc., a non-profit organization based in Hampton. Six years later, SNV is providing support to those who need a place to talk without shame or guilt.

Seeking a way to impact children in a positive way, Veronica, together with her daughter Rachel, established SNV’s Performing Arts and Mentoring Program. The program uses theatre, music, and dance to teach children awareness and prevention techniques for unhealthy situations they may find themselves in—such as sexual abuse, peer pressure, gang violence, and online predators. Nine weeks long, the program encompasses skits, field trips, and guest speakers and provides children the opportunity to learn, grow, and develop confidence. Some of the children who participate have been victims of sexual abuse. One such girl who joined the program was very subdued, speaking and interacting very little at first. Slowly, as the program progressed, the girl began to open up. She began singing, dancing, and sharing her experience with other children to help them understand.

“I don’t know where you’re taking her, but make sure she stays there!” the girl’s therapist told her mother. “I’ve never seen her be so vocal and happy before.” Stories like this empower Veronica, proving she’s on the right track—but she knows there’s still much work to be done.

EMPOWERING GIRLS
Growing up, Nakisha Harris always felt that a lot of teen girls missed having a positive role model in their lives. Thanks to the role models in her life, particularly her father, Nakisha was able to meet the challenges of being a teenage mother, completing school, and building a career for herself. Now a successful adult, she is confident, poised, and has keen mind.

Nakisha is passionate about inspiring girls. She saw a need for a program to empower young girls to be successful leaders. Girl Power United began in Chesapeake in 2010 to meet this need. GPU offers empowerment workshops, scholarship and leadership programs, and health awareness.

Mentoring is an important part of GPU’s mission and helps girls recognize their inner ability to achieve greatness and meet society’s challenges with positive attitudes and behaviors. Mentors engage teenage girls in one-on-one activities, provide them with guidance on career choices, teach them to cope with peer pressure and stressful relationships, and develop practical life skills such as leadership, communication, and decision-making.

Nakisha is fervent in her quest to help young girls and strives to be a role model and mentor for all the girls in the program. She develops one-on-one relationships with them and stays in touch with her mentees through calls and texts as well as by attending events and introducing the girls to various opportunities.

“I just look at them as all my children,” Nakisha explained, “and they know I’m there to support them.”

Nakisha says mentoring boosts self-esteem and empowers the girls in the program. “They can view their aspirations as possibilities and that they can achieve great things in their life,” she said. “When you have a positive attitude in life, it just changes so many things. It opens your mind to know you can achieve anything.”

GPU’s mission of empowering girls is spreading across and beyond Hampton Roads. Although she still maintains a home in Chesapeake, Nakisha recently moved to Woodbridge, Virginia, to establish a chapter in Northern Virginia. Wherever she is, Nakisha will continue motivating and inspiring young girls to become successful, empowered women.

FILLING A VOID
For over 125 years and under several different names, The Up Center in Norfolk has been helping the people of Hampton Roads live better lives. The Up Center added mentoring to the programs it offers in 2007 when the Southside’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program closed, leaving a void to be filled. Mary Midyette was in the right place at the right time to come on board to help launch The Up Center’s Team Up Mentoring program in 2008.

Experienced and incredibly friendly, Mary serves as supervisor of The Team Up Mentoring. The program is evidence based with measurable outcomes. Mentees, primarily at-risk children who live in single-parent homes, are tested on academic, behavioral, and social functioning at the beginning and end of the minimum one-year commitment. In the four years the program has been around, 98 percent of children who participate improve.

Team Up keeps Mary busy. She runs the program with two employees and is responsible for checking in with mentors and mentees once a month, providing support (including being on call 24/7), writing grants and reports, doing publicity and outreach, working with Up Center volunteers, and helping with training. Mary understands the tremendous benefits of having a mentor. Many years ago, she was mentored by her fourth grade teacher, who helped her overcome the shyness she had developed after moving multiple times with her military family.

“I think in a way we can all really use a cheerleader, somebody to tell us how wonderful we are,” Mary said, “especially an adult taking interest in a child. Phenomenal things can happen.”

Mary also serves as a match specialist, thoughtfully pairing children and mentors based on common interests, locations, and other factors. One such successful pair was between her brother and a young boy Mary knew was meant for him. The child is half Japanese, and her brother’s wife is half Japanese. The boy loves computers and mechanical things, as does her brother. Topping it off, they live within a half mile of each other. Mary knew she had made a good match when the boy’s mother shared with her that the boy came home one day and couldn’t stop smiling. Mary’s brother had taken him to Lowe’s to pick up some things, the first time the boy had gone into Lowe’s with a man.

Team Up only requires a one-year commitment, but they have an 80 percent retention rate. Even those who have left the program often stay in touch, though they might not be able to see each other as often. The very first match in 2008 is still together, and although the mentee will soon turn 18 and age out of the program, a life-long friendship will remain. To prove this, Mary excitedly shares a story about how last summer the mentor took his mentee to the law firm where he worked and introduced the young man as his brother because, at that point, that’s what they were.

“The mentors get so much out of it, and the kids do, too,” Mary said. “They grow, and they have these role models. They succeed in ways they probably never thought they would, but the mentors get so much out of it too, seeing that [improvement] for their kids who they grow to love.”

A DEEP COMMITMENT
Veronica, Nakisha, and Mary all agree becoming a mentor is a deep commitment, requiring time and passion. The relationships formed through a mentoring program can have a profound effect on the lives of those involved. Providing personal growth and empowerment are just the start.    

Mentors are always in demand. Programs such as SNV,  GPU, and Team Up need willing and able adults to ensure that the children they help can be paired with someone who cares. Watching an hour or two less of television each week can translate to a life-long impact on someone’s life. 

To learn more about the programs and how to get started, visit:

• Survivors Not Victims - www.HelpingSurvivors.com

• Girl Power United - www.GirlPowerUnited.org

• The Up Center - www.UpCenter.org

Emily Baine is a freelance writer and Sr. Contact Strategist & communication specialist with BCF Advertising in Va. Beach.  Reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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