Slug Mentors | Students help kids overcome domestic violence | By Ryan Mark-Griffin, City on a Hill Press
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

He didn’t mean to hurt him.

“Soccer is a contact sport — you are going to get hit in ways that aren’t allowed,” I overhear José’s* mentor Colin Mark-Griffin tell him as he dribbles a ball in the afternoon sun. Brushing his shaggy black hair out of his eyes, he continues. “But you can’t just hit them back, or you will get penalized. Instead, next time you get the ball, get real close to them, and kick it at them as hard as possible.”

I watch as Colin demonstrates by getting up after pretending to be knocked down, dribbling the ball close to his mentee and aiming a soft kick at the middle school boy with short brown hair.

It’s not easy to watch the shot that collides with José. With a groan he falls to his knees clutching at his pants. Mortified, Colin runs over to him, apologizing and checking to see if he is all right.

“Yes, I’m fine,” José chuckles between deep breaths. “I get it.”

José is one of 20 youth involved in the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center’s mentoring program. Ninety percent of the youth involved in the program come from families that have a history of domestic violence, according to data collected by the WAWC. These same youth are at a greater risk of developing issues like depression, substance abuse and, in some cases, learning to copy the violence that they witness at home. Sixty-percent percent of teens who witness domestic violence in their parents’ relationship experience abuse in their own relationships, according to a 2009 research study conducted by the Liz Claiborne Foundation.

The program matches youth up with an adult mentor for a six-month relationship, and the pairs meet once a week to do something together. For José and his mentor Colin, this often means playing a sport. But no matter what the activity, the mentoring program aims to model healthy relationships between youth and adults.

It might be hard to see how accidentally hitting a middle school boy in the crotch with a soccer ball could be considered positive male role modeling, but Aleen Raybin — a youth advocate at the WAWC — said the mentoring program provides a safe place for youth where they can learn healthy relationship skills.

“It’s hard for them to trust relationships when they grow up in violent homes, and we create a safe place for them to express themselves,” Raybin said. “They can come to this safe space and get their needs met. It’s not about what’s going on at home — it’s about whatever they want to do in that moment.”

Colin, like most of the mentors, is a student at UC Santa Cruz. The WAWC does significant outreach to students whose majors offer field study, such as community studies and sociology. However, mentors are a diverse group, said youth advocate Adam Harrison, who helped coordinate the program.

“We get a lot of psychology and sociology majors, as well as community studies,” Harrison said. “But we also get people who find out about us while waiting at a bus stop.”

Harrison stressed that interested students do not need to have prior experience working with youth, as long as they are willing to donate their time. Prior to working with any youth at the WAWC, mentors are required to complete a seven-week training process.

“One of the most important things for people to know is, regardless of your background, all you really need to do is show up,” Harrison said. “We provide all the training you will need.”

The sea breeze is blowing hard as I arrive at the bonfire, and many of the mentors and mentees are wearing sweatshirts. I am introduced to the 15 or so people hanging out on towels surrounding the fire pit, and I take a spot next to one of them.

Off to the side, a group of young teens and their mentors are playing catch with a football. Colin’s mentee José is among them. He passes the football to his sister Marta* and when she flinches and drops it, he encourages her to not be afraid of getting hit. The tone of his voice is tired but calm, the way a parent speaks to a child learning to ride a bike. Walking over to join them, I strike up a conversation with José.

Without missing a beat in his game of catch, José tells me that he is excited for his soccer team’s first real match the next day. Speaking of his two favorite positions, goalie and defenseman, José is relaxed and talkative.

However, his expression changes when I ask him about the mentoring program and how he and his sister Marta came to be involved in it. Now, he resembles a student who doesn’t know the answer to the teacher’s question. He glances at his younger sister before he responds. A few seconds pass before he says anything.

“We have family problems,” he says.

Esmeralda Rizas, crisis intervention advocate and community educator at the Women’s Crisis Center in Watsonville, explained why having an adult outside the family to talk to can help children who have experienced domestic violence.

“The child or teen has the opportunity to speak with someone who is there to listen and provide support,” Rizas said. “Unfortunately, they don’t always have that kind of relationship with their parents.”

She said that a mentoring program allows for a safe space to talk.

“They know that they can talk to someone, and they won’t be screamed at, or punished for saying things that might not be OK with their parents,” Rizas said.

The Liz Claiborne Foundation also found a correlation between the worsening economy and increasing rates of both violence in teen relationships and domestic violence. Seventy-four percent of teens surveyed for the study said that their families experienced some form of economic hardship in the past year, and of those, 44 percent reported witnessing some form of violence or other abusive behavior in their parents.

Maisy*, a seventh grader involved in the WAWC mentoring program, echoed Rizas’ words when she talked about her relationship with her mentor, Megan Ludwig, a UCSC fourth-year.

“It’s kinda like having another older sister who I can talk to,” Maisy said. “I feel comfortable talking to her about anything.”

Sitting comfortably at a table outside one of their favorite hangouts on Pacific Avenue, Ludwig and her middle-school mentee Maisy laugh as they share memories from their experience as a mentoring pair.

“Do you remember that one time we were walking along the beach and there were all these dead sand crabs, and every time we saw one you had to stop and look at them?” Maisy teased.

“I had to stop and look,” Ludwig said. “It was fascinating, there were like thousands of them — how could you not?”

This playful back-and-forth sounds more like old friends catching up over a cup of coffee than the everyday conversation of a college student and her middle-school mentee. But the structure of the program makes it easy for students like Ludwig to learn skills necessary for connecting with youth.

Over the course of the seven-week training process, mentors develop skills in active listening, harm reduction and understanding how domestic violence affects children. A major component of the training process is that mentors take an active role. When discussing the issue of domestic violence, for instance, mentors engage in brainstorming sessions to define what constitutes abuse, break down myths about domestic violence, and understand potential barriers to the victim of domestic violence against leaving their spouse.

One of the lessons stressed in the training program is that mentors are there for the youth, not the other way around. While the WAWC wants mentors to develop a close relationship with their mentee, mentors should not unload personal issues on their youth.

“The No. 1 priority in our program is the youth,” Raybin said. “We make sure that the people we bring into their lives are prepared to support them in that capacity, and it includes not using the space for themselves.”

By providing mentors with the tools they will need to work with the kids, the WAWC encourages people to get involved. Being willing to show up is all that is needed to make a difference in the life of a child, Harrison said.

“People who come into our programs feel comfortable and ready to jump in after our training,” Harrison said. “Who you are is perfectly good enough to work with a young person.”

Back on Seabright Beach, it is almost time to go. But before everyone can go home, Harrison and a young mentee have organized a makeshift obstacle course and the WAWC has provided a brand new boogie board as the prize. Mentors and mentees alike compete, and eventually one of the boys is declared the winner.

Although it may not have been the point, the competition provides a metaphor for the obstacles youth who have witnessed domestic violence face and the help that mentors can provide. Just as Harrison worked with a mentee to construct the course, mentors help youth redefine the obstacles in their own lives, whether this means making decisions about substance use, safety planning for when a parent turns violent, or practicing healthy relationship behaviors. By establishing a fun, safe space for youth to deal with serious issues, mentors help them develop into healthy adults capable of avoiding harmful relationships later in life. Since many abusers learn to use violence in the home from their parents, preventing a child from growing up to do the same has the potential to break the cycle and positively impact generations.

Ludwig said she has discovered a passion, and is planning to work with youth when she moves home to Los Angeles. Maisy, whom she mentors, has plans of her own. Inspired by her experience with Ludwig, Maisy wants to give to back to the program.

“I have Megan, and it’s nice to have her,” Maisy said. “So it would be nice for another kid somewhere to have a mentor too. I would love to be someone’s mentor.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of children 18 and under.

Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.