The Job of a Mentor
When they come back to visit him years after graduation, the first thing Dave Niewenhuis’ students tell him is, “hey, Mr. Dave. I love you, man.” He’s been called a grandfather figure, a big brother, a dad, because his students know that he genuinely loves them back.
“What brings me joy is to build relationships with them,” he says. “Pour my knowledge into them, hold them accountable, have great talks with them, and be that role model.”
For the last seven years, Niewenhuis has taught
at the Grand Rapid, Michigan chapter of YouthBuild,
an organization that teaches young people the skills
to build successful careers in the trades and also
to become leaders in their community. Many of these
students come from the inner city and have often not
had many caring mentors in their lives. In addition
to the skills of specific trades, YouthBuild also
helps students earn their GEDs, become OSHA, first
aid, and CPR certified, and learn everything from
to job readiness.
“What I do is I focus on introducing the students to as
many of the trades as possible,” Niewenhuis says. “Most
of them start out having no idea what that means, then
we teach them about laminate or paint, installing
cabinets, roofing, siding, insulation, framing,
finishing, everything. It's like their eyes pop open
and at first they think, oh, I can't do that, but they
can do that.”
Niewenhuis himself went into construction right out of high school,
framing and building houses for six years, followed by a stint in
building maintenance for an organization called Wedgwood Christian
Services. For Wedgwood, he went on to teach an employment training
program, teaching kids job skills and also getting them interested
in construction and woodworking. He then worked in the private
sector for a while, working alongside architects, engineers, and
project managers for industrial construction projects. When the
opportunity came up at YouthBuild, he jumped
at the chance.
Personally, his passion is woodworking. He built his
dad a two-story barn, and that is their woodshop. He’s
crafted everything from tables, to a 20-foot free-span
bridge, to a cedar strip canoe. But even more than
woodworking, he loves teaching his passion
to young people.
When they make even something simple, like a cutting board, he says, “…they take it home and they are so stinking proud that they can have made something they can touch, see, feel every day. And I think that's just huge; that brings me a lot of enjoyment.”
A lot of kids over the years have asked Niewenhuis to be their mentor, but for Niewenhuis it doesn’t have to be a formal thing. He tries to be a good mentor to his students every day, whether it’s an official title or not. And to him, being a mentor goes well beyond teaching them employable skills.
“I see (a mentor) as somebody that they can confide in,” he says, “somebody that they can be honest with, that’s not going to go anywhere, that will push them, will love them no matter what ugliness might be in their life. So I get to know a lot of personal stuff about students and there's no judgment. And I think that's the freedom they have, is to come and to share and to be and to know that through all of that they're still loved. And I'll tell them that.”
For Niewenhuis, the concept of forging one’s own path resonates, because that’s exactly what he feels YouthBuild is trying to teach: the ability and wherewithal for these young people to forge their own paths and waking them up to what they’re capable of.
“We tend to think of what have you physically done and made? And when you think about the impact you have as a mentor,” he says, “it's probably not going to be anything necessarily physical that you can touch, see, feel, recognize. That mentor piece is what do you do that's silent, behind the scenes. It’s what kind of lasting impact are you imprinting on the life of someone else.”
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