"I love working with the volunteers over 50."

Janet Waters
Ascentria Care Alliance
Worcester, MA


I spent many years working in prisons and lockups after graduating from Harvard with a Master’s degree in Divinity. I had the naïve notion that I would bring the light and joy of God to those incarcerated. I quickly realized that a loving and powerful God was already there. That drew me in.

My father was a minister and my mother was a nurse. I was raised in an environment where work was thought of not as a way to make money but as a way to fulfill your mission in life. We were encouraged to think about what we wanted our contribution to be. I was motivated to try and do the right thing and have always believed in the value and dignity of every human being, regardless of their background or behavior.

My goal in pursuing a degree in Divinity was to become a prison chaplain, but I ended up with more secular positions, first in a House of Correction, then working with community-based criminal offender programs, and finally as the clinical director of a locked treatment unit for violent juvenile offenders. I worked to transform that unit  from just a lock-up facility with a focus on behavior management to a treatment center that relied on group work as the primary modality.

Teenage boys tend to operate in groups, whether it be gangs or sports teams, so we created a treatment milieu that operated with this reality in mind. Peer pressure forced the young men to get honest with each other. They would call each other out. Over time, they learned to take responsibility for their criminal behavior and not for the abuse they may have endured. We could then work with them to develop a plan for a different life once they were released.

It was very successful and rewarding, but I had two daughters of my own that I wanted to spend more time with, so I stopped working for several years. When my youngest was heading to college, I had more time on my hands and began helping a family with a daughter who has special needs. When I was ready to return to the workforce, a friend told me about an Encore Fellow opportunity  – a position for an experienced professional – with the Second Acts Initiative based at Ascentria Care Alliance.

I got the job, and my first task was to bring volunteers age 50+ into two of Ascentria’s residential programs for teen mothers and their children – women who were either homeless or about to be homeless. The mentoring program I created at the Ruth House has been the most rewarding.

I thought carefully about who I wanted as mentors. They needed to be deeply rooted in the community, working women who had demonstrated resilience in their own lives, good role models to these young mothers, and able to bring consistency of presence.

Mentors like Leona Martin, aprofessional recruiter in the healthcare field who I found leading a job search workshop at the local library. Several conversations between us revealed she was also a teen mother. While lucky to have a supportive family, she told me, “I wish I’d had somebody that was an objective party, that I could have talked with from time to time. Somebody I could lean on.” She agreed to become a mentor because she said she “wanted to be able to share with a young woman that just because you’ve had this little bit of a set back it doesn’t mean that you can’t succeed.”

Leona and her mentee have developed a close relationship over the past year. When I asked Leona what she enjoys most, she said, “I enjoy spending quality time with her. It’s about giving back to a young woman who’s in a place that I was, and I know how hard it was. I listen, I tell her what I went through and let her know it didn’t stop me. I hope it inspires her to do the same thing.”

Aviva Rich-Shea, a professor at a local community college, has become a real advocate for her mentee, Rita. “I’m all about relationship building,” she told me, “and because Rita was starting as a student at my community college, I’ve been able to keep my eye on her and make sure she doesn’t fall through the cracks.” Aviva and Rita meet once a week.

Recently, when she learned that Rita would soon be discharged from the Ruth House because she was aging out, Aviva jumped into action.  Because Rita had no family who would take her in, Aviva offered to help Rita find an apartment. Aviva had spent time volunteering at homeless shelters and was worried that’s where Rita would land. She told Rita, “ As long as you want the connection, I’m here.”

Their relationship has taken a little while to develop, so Aviva was touched when she overheard Rita telling someone recently how important it’s been to have Aviva there for her. “As a volunteer,” says Aviva, “we often don’t realize how little time is required to make a huge difference in someone’s life.”

We now have other teen mothers ask for mentors, which feels like a good sign. I love working with the volunteers over 50. They’ve lived enough years where they’ve established a variety of connections, so when you invite them in, you don’t just get them, you get everyone in their world. I meet with the mentors monthly, and when I tell them what’s going on with a young woman, they all work together to sort out how to help her based on everyone they know collectively. All of a sudden, you have solutions to problems. It’s incredible.

Janet Waters is a Second Acts Encore Fellow with the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities and is based at Ascentria Care Alliance, a social services organization centered in Worcester, Mass. Learn more at ascentria.org

An abbreviated version of this story first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor. 

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