Emma and Ms. Sarah - Burlington, Vermont
Twelve years together and counting, mentor match Sarah and Emma continue to write on the pages of each other's lives.
The tree was their favorite spot. No matter how many times they went to read beneath it, it never changed—the leaves didn't rustle in the wind nor did they fall in a multi-colored swirl of autumn chill. Still standing, unchanged, the tree—crafted from plywood and painted in shiny hues—reaches out its branches like welcoming arms in the children's section of the Burlington, Vermont Barnes and Noble. Even after almost 12 years as a mentor-mentee pair, Sarah and Emma still remember fondly those countless afternoons together under that tree reading everything from Stuart Little, The Secret Garden, and Shel Silverstein poems to M is for Maple Syrup, a classic Vermont read.
Ebbs and flows
Life isn't as simple now; Emma, a high school junior, moved in January from her father's home, where she'd lived for 13 years, to her mother's. The move took her two hours away from her father, her school and friends, and from Sarah. But like any friendship, especially one that has lasted 12 years, the relationship between Emma and Sarah ebbs and flows; it changes color and texture, just as childhood does as it fades into adolescence and, in turn, adolescence into adulthood.
For both of them, looking back, there were those sweet times under the reading tree; the time they went sledding when Emma's dark hair turned totally white from the snow—lighter than Sarah's—and they couldn't stop laughing; the vacation they took to Disney World when they dined with the "real" Mickey Mouse (a friend of Sarah's who worked for a while wearing a Mickey suit); the weekend in Hershey, Pennsylvania, when they ate nothing but chocolate and junk food; the school fieldtrips; movies; meals out; and best of all—just talking and hanging out. But, like any relationship, there were also the challenging times. Sarah had to figure out how to help Emma, when at six years old she had to call 911 after her mother's former boyfriend, who was convicted of domestic violence, broke into their home one night. And more recently, Emma had to make the decision to change schools and uproot the life she knew in order to open a new chapter with her mother.
What they have both learned though, is that after more than a decade together, they don't have to wonder about their love and support for each other. They can take it for granted, but they can also breathe deeply the air of a carefree New England afternoon and be reminded of this gift.
"Emma needed someone around her to be positive," says Clarence Harrington, Emma's father, explaining why Sarah and Emma were matched through the King Street Youth Center in Burlington, Vermont. "Sarah has been a good inspiration in my girl's life. Even now, at 17, when every teenager is distant and finding their way, Emma knows Sarah will always be there for her, that I am always there for her, too. Sarah's good people. A lot of people act like they care, but when it comes down to it, to the hard stuff, they don't. She does. That much class in a person is rare."
Emma admits her relationship with Sarah is different now that she is in high school and wants to spend more time with friends (and considering the two hour difference), but when she gets talking about Sarah, she forgets herself, and the memories rush out.
"Sarah is one of the craziest people I have ever met. Not crazy-crazy, but fun crazy. We always laugh a lot," she says. "When I was younger, we made up a whole series of stories about Rosebud. When Rosebud was good, she was a horse, but when she was bad—and oh, she was bad sometimes—she was a cow." But unlike Rosebud, who had to repeat first grade a good six or seven times, Emma excels in school and was even on the honor roll her freshman year.
"Yeah, Sarah is always asking me about school and my homework," Emma says. "She always tells me that doing well in school and working toward my future are the most important things. She motivates me to do my best in school." In fact, Sarah, who is director of admissions and a college counselor at the prestigious Vermont Commons School, has already started planning some college trips with Emma.
Besides "just hanging out and being together," Emma says the best part of having Sarah in her life is having someone other than her parents to talk to. Emma has also enjoyed—and benefited from—spending time with some of Sarah's friends. "She has seen some of my women friends who have really exciting, important jobs succeeding in the world," says Sarah. "She has also met some of my male friends and realizes that men and women can be friends, that they can have positive, respectful, equal relationships." And after meeting Sarah's mother, who was a state senator, Emma started counting the years until she could vote.
As for Sarah, there are many "best parts" of being a mentor. "I don't have kids of my own, so I have been able to be a sort of second mom to Emma in a lot of ways. And she is just so amazing and fun to be with; I can't imagine my life without her," she says. "My parents instilled in me the importance of giving back. And although I have been on many organizations' boards over the years, being a mentor to Emma is without question the best thing I have ever done in my life."
Andrea Torello, executive director at Mobius Mentoring, which works in collaboration with the King Street Youth Center, notes, "It's very evident to anyone who meets Sarah and Emma that they care very deeply about each other and that they share a vast repertoire of bonding experiences. You can see it all in the way they smile at each other."
And in the opinion of Gabriella Tufo-Strouse, volunteer coordinator at the King Street Youth Center, "Sarah and Emma really are the true essence of a perfect mentoring match."
Although Sarah realizes that—ironically—memories are often the one thing that constantly change with time, she remembers as if it were yesterday the first time she met Emma, her new kindergarten-age mentee. As she neared Emma's house, she saw the half curtain on the front-door window being yanked to one side. Then, from behind the glass peered a little face, first the eyes, alight and curious, then the smile, stretching full and wide with the abandon of sheer delight.
"I don't know why, but neither of us was nervous," says Sarah. "Right off the bat, we both had a lot of questions to ask and answers to offer. Then, we went to my house and made valentines. I knew becoming a mentor would be a huge responsibility, but with Emma, it has come naturally."
"I know Sarah and I will always be together," says Emma.
The valentine Emma made that day, cut from red construction paper and dog-eared pink and white doilies, still hangs on Sarah's refrigerator.