By Shelly Malis
I had no idea 17 years ago when I met Heather Harvison, founder and executive director of Sisters Circle, that my life would change forever.
I was on a site visit for the Jewish Women’s Giving Initiative (now known as the Jewish Women’s Giving Circle). A group of white, Jewish, middle-aged women arrived at a downtrodden city school that had been divided to accommodate multiple schools. The building was surrounded by dirt and rocks, not a blade of grass or piece of playground equipment to be seen. Heather introduced us to a group of first-year program participants; each of these girls would move forward with a one-to-one mentorship that would last throughout their middle and high school years. These girls were selected by their teachers and school principal as showing a lot of promise and potential but lacking the many resources and opportunities I took for granted. That site visit left me stunned, overwhelmed and embarrassed. How could I not be aware of what was happening in my own backyard? What could I do?
I decided to become a mentor. This was the beginning of my front row seat to the life of a family living on public assistance. Since meeting Keyarra and her family, my sense of “there but for the grace of God go I” began to permeate my existence. I saw first hand the social and educational inequities in our society, the consequences of the lack of access to good quality health care and fresh food and the challenges of transportation. I supported Keyarra by helping her with school work and taking her to participate in Sisters Circle activities. For 15 years, my family and Keyarra’s have become a part of each other’s lives. We shared the joy of Keyarra being the first person in her family to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college — accomplishments that she says would not have been possible without us and Sisters Circle. We have shared memories, challenges and even family tragedies. Most of all, we have learned from each other.
Our relationship with Keyarra and her family has changed how we look at our role in making Baltimore a more equitable community. It has changed how we focus our philanthropy. I am now on the board of directors at Sisters Circle. It is a privilege to be a part of one of the longest-standing mentoring organizations in Baltimore. My connection with Sisters Circle will be with me forever. That is what Sisters Circle is about — long-lasting relationships. We cannot know about each other if we do not have relationships with one another.
Shelly Malis is an alumnae mentor and a member of the board of directors at Sisters Circle. Sisters Circle is currently accepting applications for the next round of mentor-mentee matches. For more information, go to sisterscircle.org/volunteer.