Jeanne Gattegno

Why is mentorship important and how do you enact it in the world?

Mentorship is the greatest gift to give and to receive. It is teaching others and learning from them as well as learning from others and teaching. Every interaction with another can be a “mentoring moment” and can serve as the light in the dark, the touch of reality or the helping hand that someone needs.

I am the luckiest person in the world. I have been blessed with so many kind, generous and caring mentors in my life. Family, friends, co-workers, and colleagues taught and guided me to be the person I am today and the person I will be in the next phase of my life. Yet, most of them never realized the impact they had on my personal and professional growth.

When I began my work in the 1960’s, I was just 17 and just out of high school. My mother and 10 brothers and sisters and I lived in poverty. At one point we lived in an abandoned apartment house, but then moved to the security of a public-housing project. It was a time in our country when the movement began to expose and challenge the conditions of poverty and create economic opportunities for those who had none. I started my life’s work with the Community Action Program not really knowing what the War on Poverty was all about, but I seized the opportunity. In the end, I realize that I was born to do this work.

At 17, I was so ill prepared for the world. I was afraid, insecure and even ashamed of my poverty; feelings, I believe, we have all felt during our lives. We all have birthdays and we age from infant to child to adult. Growing from a girl to a woman, a poor kid, to an active participant in the antipoverty movement, however, was not about age. I learned so much from the “welfare mothers” I worked with early on about strength, persistence and taking care of each other. Neighborhood people taught me about working together and having faith that things could change. My co-workers taught me how to work as a team member and to listen, lead and solve problems. My colleagues helped me to think strategically. My family and friends showed me how to love and be supportive. And my lifelong mentor and friend showed me that I had value and endless possibilities if only I would be open to them.

He instilled in me the value in helping and guiding others. He set the example for me right from the start. It has been the mentoring of others that has given me great satisfaction as I come to the end of my Community Action career.

I believe that Mentorship is a right and a responsibility. It is as much a verb as a noun.

Mentorship can be intentional or unintentional, and it is a vital way of life.

Jeanne Gattegno’s career in social services spans over 45 years, first working for Progress for Providence and then as executive director of the Joslin Center before taking the helm at Westbay Community Action, a role from which she recently retired. She was also one of the founders of Rhode Island Food Bank and Rhode Island Donation Exchange. She joined Westbay as president and CEO in 1982, overseeing a ten-million-dollar budget, eight directors, seven departments, 80 employees and hundreds of volunteers. She also worked with a supportive board of directors. The staff serves 10,500 client households annually and is the largest agency in Kent County. Gattegno is active with Warwick 13 and Rotary Club of Warwick, where she served as president 2008-2009 and in 2010 traveled to Dominican Republic to build a health clinic with the Rotary.

photo by Agapao Productions