Leslie Vinson, employee of Pillsbury United Communities and director of Oak Park Community Center in North Minneapolis, chose to finish her schooling and pursue employment where she could use her skills while giving back to the community she loves.
Leslie grew up in Minneapolis with two siblings and a single mom who worked two to three jobs at a time. Leslie was 14 when her mother decided to find additional adult support/mentors for each of the children. Leslie was matched with Ann, who became her mentor for the next six years and is still considered a friend today. Leslie looked forward to spending time with Ann each week and appreciated the consistent friendship she offered.
From Ann, Leslie learned the importance of a steady adult friend outside of the family, and this led Leslie to become a mentor in college. Her heart was pulled toward teen moms after her own best friend became pregnant at 14. She believes her support made a difference in the lives of the girls she worked with.
Years later, when Leslie’s first-born son, Al Jr., was seven years old, a tragedy befell the family. Al’s father landed himself in an unsafe situation and was killed by the police. Early on in their time of mourning, Al came to Leslie and said, “Now that Daddy’s gone, who’s going to teach me to be a man?”
Leslie, heart aching, came to Kinship soon after this conversation. She was worried that Al didn’t have enough male support in his life, and she knew the power of mentoring from her own childhood experiences.
She chose Kinship because it was faith-based and she desired a Christian family for her son.
Al was matched with Heather and Walt, whose family embraced and loved him for the next three years. Al now had friends to talk with about his father’s death, and he enjoyed many new experiences like building bird houses and fishing. Walt even coached one of Al’s football teams. Leslie looks back on this time and remembers the feeling of relief and support she felt. It was an important time of healing and reinforced her belief in mentoring.
Today, Leslie and her husband, Nate, mentor young unmarried couples through the University of Minnesota Family Foundation. Leslie also sits on the Kinship board of directors. She works hard to encourage other African American adults to consider mentoring in their communities, especially in North Minneapolis.
While studies show that mentoring is colorblind, Leslie still believes that kids are better served by having a mentor who looks like them and lives their experiences each day. She sees the effects of adults reaching out to kids in their own community each day at Oak Park Community Center.
She believes it is easier for kids to mirror someone who faces similar issues and obstacles in life. She also believes that positive African American adults can more easily inspire and give hope to African American kids who might feel alone and unsupported in their lives.
“Years ago, someone supported my mother, mentored me, and encouraged me to pursue my dreams, as well as to serve others as a mentor,” Leslie recalls. “I’m just like these kids, but I had a different support system than some. The first step is to believe it’s possible, the second step is to find support, and the final step is to go for it!”
Leslie encourages adults in the African American community to step up for a kid — it is imperative to building stronger communities.
Over 60 African American kids, ages five to 15, are waiting for a mentor through Kinship of Greater Minneapolis. To learn more about Kinship, call 612-588-4655 or go to www.kinship.org.
To learn more about the Pillsbury United Community Centers, visit www.puc-mn.org.
Nancy Torrison is recruitment director for Kinship of Greater Minneapolis.