Alexandria: The Accidental Mentor

Alexandria: The Accidental Mentor

Commentary-Community Lodgings

Hennesy (left) and her Community Lodgings mentor Dana Gilbertson display the scrapbook they worked on together last summer.

Hennesy (left) and her Community Lodgings mentor Dana Gilbertson display the scrapbook they worked on together last summer. Photo courtesy of Dana Gilbertson

Mentoring a teenage girl was the last thing on Dana Gilbertson's mind in 2013 when she visited Community Lodgings, an Alexandria nonprofit that offers transitional and affordable housing and youth education to low-income, predominantly Latino families. Gilbertson had intended to start a birthday program for the Community Lodgings youth, something that she had seen in her native Wisconsin.

However, Melanie Ficke, Community Lodgings' program director, knew she would be a perfect fit for their mentoring program, a weekly meeting of adult role models and teens from the Arlandria community. Now Gilbertson, a marketing executive with Innovative Association Solutions in Del Ray and a part-time nanny, says mentoring with Community Lodgings each Monday evening “is always the best part of my week.”

Through those meetings she met Hennesy, a creative 14-year-old girl struggling with grades and focus. Last spring Gilbertson offered Hennesy a challenge — pass your failing class and we will scrapbook together over the summer.

Hennesy set herself on a study schedule and passed her class. The two of them spent the summer bonding over their shared love of scrapbooking. "Hennesy felt much more comfortable talking because it was so natural,” Gilbertson recalled. "She was able to talk about the things she probably would not have if I were asking her questions. It was an awesome experience.”

Gilbertson's only regret is that she did not mentor sooner, saying, “The mentoring program has taught me more than I would have ever expected. It really comes down to listening and being present every minute of our time together. That means so much to them.”

She asserts that mentoring has had a greater impact on her than on the girls. “I didn’t realize just how much effect one person can have on the entire course of someone’s life and wellbeing."

Mentoring has also given her a peek into the world of a young, Hispanic teen and the challenges of cultural differences, immigration and translating for parents. "I have never experienced so many of the things these girls juggle on a daily basis. Their resiliency and ability to tackle seemingly grownup issues at such an early age truly blows my mind,” she added.

While Gilbertson began mentoring somewhat accidentally, she feels everything happens for a reason and acknowledges this is the best “accident” she may ever make. “The girls have changed the way I see so many things in life,” she reflects “and I’m so incredibly grateful for that.”

To become a volunteer mentor for girls or boys with Community Lodgings, contact Jane Collins at