How To Save A Life by Shamica West

“How to Save a Life”

It’s election season!   As political platforms are presented, we are faced with the awesome responsibility of deciding which candidate will move America forward as the framers intended.  While the candidates and their supporters debate the major issues there are others on the ground who struggle daily to do what I feel is some of the most important work in our society.  Making the difference in the lives of our posterity!    After the streamers and confetti are swept up on the evening of November 6, 2012, the work of securing the blessings of liberty in our communities continues.

I believe that this work starts and ends with an individual’s commitment to change a life, on purpose.  Not one of us achieved success on our own.  Whether it was the encouraging words of a neighbor or a word of correction from a teacher; we all have come through this journey called life holding on to someone’s hand.  Many of us were blessed with a circle of support from which we drew strength and direction.  While others struggled to find that one person on whom they could depend.

So how does it work?  How do you make a difference in someone’s life?  Where do you find someone that needs your guidance?  How do you pay forward the gifts that life has given you?  When I think of the answers to these questions, I think of a song by the pop-rock group The Fray.  Lead vocalist and songwriter Isaac Slade, was inspired to write the song after participating in a mentoring program.  Slade was matched with a young man who was making choices that would make his journey more challenging.  You know, the kinds of choices we hope our children never make.  The young man’s decisions subsequently caused him to lose all the relationships that he had, as his friends and family were not willing to stand by and see him destroy his life.

So I ask the question again, how does it work?  How does one “save a life?” It starts with my personal mantra:  Touch the life of a young person on purpose.  When we set out to impact the life of another or to become that source of support for them, it is important that we are intentional in our efforts.  In my work with youth, I have been blessed to learn a tremendous amount about them and their personal struggle.  As I engage them, I have also learned many things about myself.  Through our relationship, I have found that the character growth experienced, is mutual.

In the spirit of this year’s election season, I’m going to share my FIVE POINT PLAN to being an effective mentor.

 1.      Empty yourself of value judgementsAs seasons change, values change.  The belief system with which we grew up is vastly different from what people believe today.  Access to the media, has made the world smaller and the power of choice greater.  When one begins to engage a young person, do not see them through your eyes and how you were raised, see them as individuals with a story.  Respect that story and build your relationship.

2.   Listen, there is power in someone’s story.  The best thing that you can do for a young person is listen to them.  In the song “How To Save a Life”, Slade wrote  “Lay down a list of what is wrong the things you’ve told him all along and pray to God, he hears you…”   Do not proceed to give what you think are the best solutions to their problem.  If in your listening, you hear something that leads you to believe that the young person is treading in dangerous waters, start asking them questions so that they can also listen to themselves and begin to be the problem solvers that they were ordained to be.

3.     Schedule and spend quality time with them.  Famed Psychologist Abraham Maslow, proposed that humans have a hierarchy of needs and that only when those needs are met, can they attain self-actualization.  According to his theory, humans want to belong.  This rings true with youth.  At the core of their existence is the need to be a part of some core group.  Having a mentor gives a young person a sense that someone else in this world cares deeply about them. Further, because that person doesn’t judge and because he or she listens and now spends quality time, the young person feels that they matter.  Having their needs met, the young person feels empowered to meet their full potential or become self-actualized.

 4.  Be consistent.  There is nothing that disappoints a young person more than a broken promise.  When you have spent so much time and energy investing in the life of a young person, it would be foolish to let them down.  Respect their time and be consistent.  Maintain open lines of communication so that if there is a promise that you cannot keep, you let them know in advance.  A belief system that I have found useful and effective is to “under promise and overdeliver.”  When you do this, you will acquire the trust of your peers as well as a young person that you serve!

 5.     Teach them a skill.  Sharing a skill with a child is like giving them a gift.  Turning one’s talent into a marketable skill has the potential to change one’s life forever.   Schooling and education is important but not everything can be learned in a classroom.  If you are mentoring a young person, LISTEN to them and help them explore their talents and gifts.  Once you have identified their talents, help them explore possible career choices that would compliment their talent.  Schedule regular time with them to build and develop skills in that area.  Help them to become so proficient at that skill that they could perform it while you are not present.   Your work with this child will create a multiplier effect in their lives and in their community.

What are some things that you have found helpful in working with youth?  Share your tips in the comment section.


Shamica West has worked with young people for the past 15 years as the Director of Operations for the Talented Tenth Leadership program.  She also served as the Dean of Student Services for Tennessee’s first single gender charter school.



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