Finding Friends First

When I turned 30, I felt like I had reached a huge milestone and I began reflecting and evaluating where I was in life personally and professionally. I was two years out of business school and enjoying my work in Chicago at the Quaker Oats Co. Professionally, I was in a good place. On the personal front, I was making friends at work and creating a nice social network in Chicago that would evolve into deeper friendships over time.

But I was also newly single and living far from my family. I had moved to Chicago four years earlier to enroll in an MBA program. Although I was enjoying the city, it didn’t quite feel like home. I realized my lack of connections to Chicago beyond work was probably a factor. I had lived life as a ‘tourist’ for many years. While I had made close friendships after my family’s move to Kentucky as a tween, I was always pining for the DC area and overlooking so many wonderful aspects of life in Kentucky. As a college student at Tufts, I felt like an outsider, and then stints living in Brazil, Germany and New York City had followed my college years.

Now I was feeling Chicago was at risk of becoming another place where I’d make memories and a few good friends, but then I’d leave without ever feeling like I had belonged. Just as many of my peers were settling into marriages and home ownership, I made a conscious decision to take action to make Chicago feel like home.  

As a young adult, I had volunteered as a tutor, and had heard about Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. I even researched it a bit, but I knew my episodic work travels and long weekend visits to see family would not align with the structured commitment the program required at the time.

That was when I learned about the Mercy Home for Boys & Girls Friends First Mentoring Program. This local, faith-based mentoring program was comfortable with my variable work and travel schedule. They even promised to match me with a youth who was reachable by public transit or, better yet, within walking distance of my home.

Potential is equally distributed, opportunity is not.

The organization matched me with Carissa, a shy girl who had recently turned 10. I was immediately taken by her big brown eyes and warm smile. We visited a bit in her grandmother’s home, and I was thrilled to get the call from the Friend’s First coordinator to let me know that Carissa wanted to officially become my ‘Friend’ through the program. With Carissa, I could experience Chicago like a kid. We visited museums and the lakefront, and we baked together. Months turned into years. Carissa and her grandmother attended my wedding, and soon she was off to college.

I periodically connected with Carissa during her college and post-college years, but our busy adult lives eventually pushed our friendship into the background. I would often think of Carissa when visiting Navy Pier or one of the other Chicago landmarks we had enjoyed together. I even kept a framed photo of her always in view. But we had lost touch, and I wasn’t even sure if she’d be up for reconnecting.

Opportunity struck a few weeks ago, however, and I took my chance to reconnect with Carissa when she posted on LinkedIn that she had recently left her job and was exploring new opportunities. I was amazed to learn when I opened her profile that, like me, she also worked in education.  After a time in Teach For America’s teacher corps, she worked many years in a charter school, rising to the role of Assistant Principal. I messaged Carissa, and within a week we met for coffee for the first time in over a decade.

Carissa has the same beautiful brown eyes, shy smile and warm personality. Our time together flew by as we spoke of her professional path in education and hopes for her next job. We reminisced about the early days of our friendship, and how I had felt welcomed by her family from day one. I also shared how much I admire her grandmother, who is the amazing woman who raised Carissa and her three siblings, and whose love and support was an important model for me in developing my own parenting style. 

In the Friends First program, Carissa said she found the space she needed to be a kid and her true self. She shared how, at her mostly white Catholic school, she and her siblings had shielded aspects of their life at home. I shared how I’d had to face my own discomfort visiting her church some Sundays to pick her up to hang out. As one of the few white visitors, I was quickly recognized as ‘Carissa’s friend’ and always welcomed to sit in on a worship service or walk around while Carissa finished up church school.

In reconnecting with Carissa, I learned more about how our relationship had impacted her life longer term. I also shared how our friendship had shaped mine. Through our relationship, I came to love a child who wasn’t my own. From her grandmother, I learned about the strength it takes to parent. Our experience together encouraged me to form friendships and connections with people of any race or culture. I learned how important it is to connect with a person and find commonalities, rather than focusing on differences. My experience as a minority in her community showed me how the efforts made to make me feel welcome were so important to me, and I have carried this lesson with me.

When Carissa’s grandmother had the foresight more than two decades ago to sign up her young grandchildren for a mentoring program, she made a decision that positively impacted their lives in obvious and subtle ways. When I made the decision to volunteer, I was guided by a feeling it was the right thing to do. What I hadn’t anticipated was how much I would benefit from my friendship with Carissa, how she would help me make Chicago my home, and how much I’d still want her in my life decades later.

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