Becoming mentors opened the door to the wonderful gift of an ongoing relationship between two families.
My wife, Connie, and I had little idea what we were truly getting into when we agreed to become mentors to a family in the Faith Community Homes program (now known as FamilyForward) in late 2005. After hearing about the FCH family program through a guest speaker at our church, we figured it would be a good way and the right time to give back and serve the community while our son was away at college.
After completing the mentor training course, we were asked if we would be willing to serve a rather unique family — three Hurricane Katrina evacuees aged 19, 20 and 21 whose parents were both deceased. Additionally, we learned that this Muslim family of two brothers and a sister had earlier emigrated, along with their father, from the war-torn country of Kosovo, having escaped the oppression of ethnic Albanians there in 1999. They landed in New Orleans, where their father tragically died of cancer a few years later.
Flown into Chicagoland by Catholic Charities after fleeing the hurricane, the family, led by the 21-year-old “mother figure” Vlora, quickly built a close relationship with FCH Program Manager Sister Carrie Miller. Connie and I then entered the picture as mentors, attempting to build trust with each family member while acting as adult advisors. It was not an easy journey as they faced financial, education, job-related and legal challenges.
Though the road was bumpy at times, we were thrilled as the family persevered through it all and began to assimilate into the community and make more responsible decisions. Connie and I had the opportunity to learn about a new culture and connect with a family we never would have encountered in our comfortable and privileged environs. We joyfully attended a citizenship ceremony for Vlora and shared in the family’s educational and job-related accomplishments along the way. The family graduated from the FCH program in just 18 months.
In many cases, that would have been it. We would have said our farewells and shared our wishes for future success and fulfilling lives. However, we all realized that a special bond had been built between our two families. Since that time, we have kept in touch with Vlora and her two brothers, each of whom still live in the Chicago area, and meet socially at least once per year. Vlora is a dental hygienist and is currently pursuing her advanced degree in dentistry. Vlora’s brothers are both meaningly employed in their careers. All are happily married, with two children each. They continue to treat us as extended family and insist that we have been important influences in their lives.
Who would have expected a “second” family as we first stepped into the apartment of these young adults who faced so many obstacles 17 years ago? We are truly blessed to still have them in our lives.