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‘All She Needs is Guidance’: Advice From an Award-Winning Mentor

Mirna Infante Pacheco and her Little, Natalie.
January is National Mentoring Month, an opportunity to celebrate supportive and meaningful mentor relationships that have the power to change a young person’s life. At ACT, Mirna Infante Pacheco, manager of administrative services in the Office of the CEO, is known for her dedication to mentorship through the Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Johnson County program that serves Iowa City and the surrounding area. Through BBBS, the country’s largest donor- and volunteer-supported mentoring network, children facing adversity such as poverty are matched with adult volunteers to forge positive relationships that provide ongoing support and have a direct, positive effect.

In 2021, Mirna was named Big of the Year for BBBS of Johnson County, and she earned a Top Fundraiser Award from the program in 2022. For this 20th anniversary of National Mentoring Month, and on #ThankYourMentor Day, we asked Mirna about her experience and the importance of mentoring.

Why and how did you get involved with mentoring?

I had finally achieved some stability in my life; I had some free time, and I had always wanted to be a Big. I have always wanted to give back to the community and make a difference in someone's life, the way people in my life did for me. I also wanted to make a new friend and grow my family circle. To my surprise, I did not know all this would happen in such a short time, and for that I am extremely grateful.

I joined BBBS in September of 2019 and was matched with Natalie, who was eight years old at the time. Natalie was shy but inquisitive and not afraid to try something new, if someone showed her how.

Would-be mentors may be deterred by a fear that it will require more commitment than they are able to give. Did you have this fear, and now that you are an experienced mentor, was it valid?

BBBS requires consistency of six hours a month, which can easily be achieved when broken up – for example, three two-hour outings. Time really does fly when you’re together. You can grab a book and take turns reading, hike a trail then get ice cream, participate in your local downtown district’s children’s activities like scavenger hunts, volunteer together at the animal shelter – the opportunities are endless!

I did have a different fear, though: When I became a Big, I had lots of babysitting experience, but I doubted myself a little. I just did not think I had enough to offer. But when I see Natalie, two words come to mind: determination and perseverance. Natalie displays these every time we finish a chapter book, every time we undertake an intricate cookie decoration kit, and every time I watch her play basketball. She’s got spunk and grit. She loves a challenge when someone she knows cares to see her through to the finish. This shows me all she needs is guidance and she will take on the rest.

How can mentors ensure that their mentorship is supportive and meaningful?

It is very simple. I’ve found a few things to be helpful.
  • Be consistent, specific, and follow through – for example, say, “See you next Saturday!” or, “Let’s run a race together on Sunday; what do you think?” and then do it. This builds trust and shows your Match you care.
  • Be a good listener and listen without judgement.
  • Display positive behaviors when you interact with each other – and with others – and encourage your Match to practice, too. It’s as simple as saying thank you to a waitress when she brings your food, or politely asking for help at the grocery store.
  • Encourage your Match to teach you an activity that’s new to you – or find one that’s new to both of you, and do it together.
How have you seen mentorship open opportunities for students from underserved backgrounds?

I’ve seen Natalie’s confidence grow firsthand. She crushes it on the basketball court and does well in school. We are working to improve her skills in some academic subjects, and she is getting more comfortable trying new things, even if she is afraid.

How can communities and organizations support successful mentorship programs?

Be an advocate for these programs, be a mentor yourself, or provide financial support. BBBS of America is in the midst of their biggest annual fundraiser, Bowl for Kids’ Sake. This year they are celebrating their 40th anniversary. Reach out to your local BBBS to participate – it’s so much fun!

People love to be a part of something meaningful and support a good cause. It was easy for me to share about this program because the impact is immediate.

What drives you to mentor year after year?

I’ve learned many wonderful things through the eyes of my Match and I’ve learned many things about myself, too. It has been a rewarding experience and I am so happy I feel I’ve expanded my family circle.

You feel younger when you experience things alongside a child because you’re showing them how to be free, and that failing is OK when you’re trying to achieve something. Plus, you get to do a lot of fun stuff you wouldn’t normally do if family like nieces and nephews live far away.

Did you have a mentor? If so, how did they influence your life?

I’ve had mentors all throughout my life. I did not always realize I had them until later in life, but I learned that people come for seasons, and they offer lessons you can carry with you if you choose.