By Kay Wolfkill
Kristen Gruntorad doesn’t just have one mentee. She has two, sisters Nyankoor and Parman. Kristen has been matched with Nyankoor since she was three, and Parman joined them a couple of years later. The sisters are now ages 17 and 13, and Kristen remains to be an adult figure who can guide them through navigating life in the United States.
When we asked Kristen how she would describe their relationship she had one word-unique. She was introduced to Nyankoor through Mentor Iowa, a Des Moines-based mentoring program certified by the Iowa Mentoring Partnership. Parman connected her younger sister to Kristen through the program because she thought it would be a beneficial relationship. Kristen acts as a resource for things Parman and Nyankoor's mother may not always have the ability to do as a refugee, and guides the girls through growing up in America. She understands the value of the girls having a reliable person they can call without having to worry about communication, translation, etc. when a situation arises that they may not have experience with.
The three of them often spend time going to the mall, hanging out at Kristen's house or getting their nails done. They have been exposed to the small town that Kristen lives in and have become a part of the family, celebrating the holidays and attending other family events. They share plenty of fun memories and have special stories together like the girls overcoming their fear of Kristen's pet chihuahua or taking Parman to the Department of Transportation three times to get her permit.
Kristen has also helped guide the girls through things like getting a job, opening a bank account, filling out the FAFSA for college, scheduling doctor's visits and navigating health care. These are just a few examples of skills that the girls did not have experience with but were able to do as a result of guidance from their mentor. Parman will be the first person in her family to go to college, and they are all very excited for her to begin this next journey. The girls's mother is thankful for Mentor Iowa and the work that Kristen does and is always telling her that she trusts the program. One day she would like to become a mentor, too. Kristen has become a support system for her as well.
A special story that Kristen shared with us was the story of Parman's middle school graduation. There existed a tradition of each graduate handing a rose to a family member after they had crossed the stage. Parman invited Kristen to the ceremony that her mother was not able to attend because of her work hours, and gave her the rose during the ceremony. This was a very special moment for the two of them because if Kristen had not attended the ceremony Parman would not have anyone to give her rose to. Kristen is proud of her ability to show up to events like this and support her mentees no matter what.
Mentoring has also benefited the sisters relationship. Before Parman joined and the match was just Kristen and Nyankoor, the girls were not as close. Now that the three regularly hang out together Nyankoor says that they were reconnected through having her as a mentor because it is something that they have in common. Nyankoor shared that Kristen has taught her coping skills, and the ability to distinguish her rights from wrongs, "Kristen helps me get through rough times," she says. "If I'm not having a very good day at school she will talk to me. I can really talk to her about anything."
Nyankoor believes that having a mentor has benefited her because it helps her know there is always someone there for her. Her favorite thing about having a mentor is that she knows there is always a person willing to do anything for her. Kristen has helped her through a lot of things and it is always a good time when they spend together. At the time of our interview Parman was at basketball practice and unable to share her thoughts; but Nyankoor thinks that her sister is just as thankful for their mentoring match.
Kristen has benefited from the match as well. The girls have taught her a lot about their culture. They will try to teach her words, and often giggle to themselves when Kristen says them wrong. To her it is an honor to learn both sides. She can say that she never has felt obligated to do anything for or with the girls. It is always a joy and an exciting adventure. They are one big family. We asked Kristen what she thought makes a good mentor. Her response was someone who wants to do the work not for the accolades, but because they have a legitimate desire to share their life with someone who needs a guiding figure in their lives; like her mentees for example. She is proud that she can guide them through the parts of life that the girls would not otherwise have the chance to access.
With a background in social work and volunteer coordination Kristen always told herself that she had never had time to mentor, but when she met the kids and put faces to the idea of mentoring she was sold on its effectiveness. Kristen soon realized there was no excuse. She’s gone through graduate school, having kids, moving, getting married, and never felt like there wasn’t enough time to be a mentor to Nyankoor and Parman. To any person considering becoming a mentor she would tell them "Do it. There is always time."