Linda N. Ward

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

“You can be anything you want to be!”

In 1968, these words of wisdom were spoken to me by my 8th grade teacher at St. Anthony’s School in Providence, Sister Margaret Gormerly CND. Words that have guided my life and provided what I now recognize as my first mentoring experience. As I left the safe, nurturing and sometimes restrictive environment of a small catholic school to go face the big, scary and demanding high school – Classical – her words provided me with strength, fortitude and most importantly confidence in my abilities and aspirations.

Mentoring to me is about supporting and encouraging, building confidence and strength, responding to challenges. It is about assisting someone to build their knowledge and recognize their true capacity. I believe everyone you encounter has the potential to be a mentor whether by active engagement or by observation. I still have a vivid recollection of leaving a meeting and seeing a line of people outside a food pantry waiting for it to open and thinking how can this be that people do not have enough food. That observation guided me to further my work around issues of hunger.

Be open to everyone, even those with whom you feel you share nothing in common. Some of my most significant professional growth is a direct result of a mentoring relationship with someone who I had, at best, a tentative relationship but who encouraged me to develop skills needed to start my own business.

When I have been confronted by challenges I look to those who have shared similar experiences. Eighteen years ago when Marilyn Drummond and I decided to start a new agency working with adults with differing abilities, I called on people who I respected, who presented as open and willing to share and asked for advice. This agency, Opportunities Unlimited used that as a foundation for its development. To this day, I routinely call on these relationships for knowledge, encouragement and inspiration.

Everyone has gifts and capacities to share – at home, in the workplace, in the community, wherever he/she may choose to be involved. This central belief has guided my work and my relationships. These are the values that my work and volunteer experiences embrace – supporting people to exercise their right to be treated with respect, dignity and fairness.

I am driven by my passion for fairness and equality and my mentors are often those who may be different, are homeless, struggle with hunger and worry about how to provide for their families. I look to them for guidance and direction and offer my support and encouragement as they engage in advocacy.

Don’t ever underestimate the power of your words and interactions with people. The very way you respond to people can provide encouragement, inspiration and a feeling of self worth that dramatically impacts a person’s life. When a person I provide services to says to me – “You really think I can do that?” I know my actions, interactions and supports have made a positive difference in the person’s life. Something we should all try to do.

Linda N. Ward is co-founder and executive director of Opportunities Unlimited, Inc. — an agency whose mission is to support people with differing abilities to lead rich and fulfilling lives and to ensure that all people regardless of abilities are treated with dignity and respect. Ward is a founding member of the RI Disability Vote Project. She was appointed to the Governor’s Commission on Disabilities and serves as chair of the legislation committee. She is a board member and past president of the Community Provider Network of RI. She is a supporter of the RI Coalition for the Homeless and a member of Women Ending Hunger at the RI Community Food Bank. Ward received her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees from Rhode Island College. She is a graduate of Leadership Rhode Island and a 2009 Fellow of The Initiative for Nonprofit Excellence at The Rhode Island Foundation.

photo by Agapao Productions