Off subject…On ripples of influence

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As I walked over to the table at camp, the boy on the end of the bench firmly planted his foot on the floor and shoved the half-dozen boys on that side of the table down until there was about a foot and a half of empty bench.

“Sit down, Tim, so the whole group will be together.”

For 12 years, I mentored 60 middle school boys in the confirmation program at my church. Not all at one time, but in six groups of 4-10. My goal wasn’t just to present the curriculum or make theologians out of my students, but to plant a few seeds of influence, inspire some open-mindedness, lend support and direction as the boys became young men.

Mostly, I just showed up each week and cared.

The boys would try to find the edge of my tolerance — typical 7th and 8th graders — but still share insights and perspectives that I hadn’t considered. They grew — physically, a lot: most were shorter than me when I first met them and all but a handful were head and shoulder taller than me two years later — but also emotionally and intellectually.

Parents would ask what my secret was. I just showed up each week and cared; planting a few seeds, creating ripples that turned into waves.

As each group would approach the end of the confirmation program, I would admonish them: “At some point in the future, maybe sooner maybe later, you will be asked to volunteer to help someone else’s kids in some program or other — maybe church or at school, maybe youth sports, maybe scouts or whatever — and when that happens, think of the time I spent with you as a middle schooler, and pay my time forward.”

While I haven’t been able to keep track of all of my boys, through my networks, I know that many have paid it forward, being camp councilors, helping with Sunday school, tutoring math, coaching peewee hockey, donating bone marrow.

Seeds were planted, ripples of influence become waves.

Throughout my time as a confirmation mentor, I knew the seeds I was planting wasn’t just among the boys in my groups, but also in their parents and friends. One mother, whose son had been in my group almost 10 years ago and is now in grad school, recently told me she’s volunteered for the confirmation program because of how I helped her son. Ripples become waves.

As I got in my car at my final 9th grade retreat, I noticed a row of stocking hats behind the nearby wood pile.

“You boys are supposed to be in your cabin,” I said. “I have a long drive.”

“We don’t want you to go,” they replied before linking arms and blocking the driveway.

Do something unexpected. Show up and care about someone else’s kids.