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Mentor of Troubled Students Way Ahead of Life's Learning Curve

By Fred Dickey

July 23, 2012

Hannah Van De Car could have chosen a simpler career, perhaps quantum physics. Instead, she went for one far more complex and frustrating: Hannah’s chosen career is to change lives. There’s no provable equation for that undertaking.

Hannah, a 22-year-old University of San Diego alumnus, is already a veteran of trying to straighten the dead-end turns that some youngsters have taken. She started while still an undergrad and has worked at it for three years. She was first a mentor and now is a program coordinator for TKF, a San Diego nonprofit that aims to reduce youth violence by working one-on-one with troubled students. Referrals normally come from teachers or school counselors.

When Hannah was solely mentoring, her caseload was 20 middle-school girls. She still keeps track of several of them.

Hannah is from Hawaii and grew up in a comfortable home with a lawyer mother and a judge father. It was her father whose example motivated her. “He was always helping people, serving people in need. I wanted to do the work I do because I first watched him do it.”

The troubled demographic that Hannah works with is almost exclusively in the minority communities of south-central San Diego. That’s a sad fact that causes endless head-scratching for sociologists.

To the kids Hannah works with, a person of her background might as well have come from a different planet. However, “As long as you show that you truly care and will listen to them, they accept you. I think it’s more valuable if you’ve been where they’re at, but that’s not me, so I just try to understand and listen.”

Nothing can prepare an inexperienced young person for being thrown into such a cold pool. Asked about the saddest lesson she has learned, Hannah thinks, and then sighs. “You can do everything in your power. You can show up, you can pick them up, you can tutor them after school, you can feed them every night. But at the end of the day when they go home and their sister is smoking a joint or their brother-in-law is walking in with a gun in his hand, it doesn’t much matter what you do. That’s the reality.”

Hannah’s thoughts turn to one that got away. “I had one girl, I never worked harder with any student trying to get her on the right track. She was in eighth grade, and her main goal was just to finish high school. She was from a screwed-up family. When she came to this country from Mexico, her mom was a prostitute. Just a crazy life.

“When I first met her at age 13, she was halfway between being a good kid and really screwed up. She was never on time for school because her mom wouldn’t wake up in time to drive her. Sometimes I would drive her home, and no one would be there. Her mom would be out partying or doing whatever she was doing. At that time, [the girl] was smoking weed and drinking.

“We would have long talks about why she shouldn’t be doing that, and [finally] she said she didn’t want to do [those things] anymore. Now, I can encourage her, but at some point, I’m going home, and she’s going home. And when she gets home and her sister’s [doing drugs], what’s she going to do? That temptation was constantly there in front of her.

“So, It didn’t work out. Her drug problem got worse. She started doing Ecstasy. She would disappear. Her mom would call me sometimes — ‘I don’t know where she is’ — and I’d go out looking for her. It was dumb; I wasn’t going to find her, but I tried. It just got crazier and crazier.”

How’s the girl doing now?

Long pause. “She’s not doing so good. … She’s not doing so good.”

Hannah says troubled kids know they have a problem, but the only way they can get turned around is when they actually want to change. In assessing what can make that happen, her attitude becomes a little old-school: “I think it comes down to personal choice, I really do. What is that saying — you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink? They have to be thirsty.”

Asked if there is a line in her mentoring relationships that neither can cross, she says, “Yeah. It’s a [shifting] gray line. It differs with every kid. For example, I love to hug my kids, but some of them, you know, they’re not huggers, so that might be a line. For me, a huge line is I never talk about my personal life with them.”

You can tell why Hannah loves this job when she talks about one she considers a success, a 15-year-old, first-generation Sudanese.

“One of my girls — I’m so proud of her — she had a huge behavior issue. She was defiant, but I love this kid. She would scream at her teachers, then she’d put on her headphones and walk out of class. She’s very tall and she has a smile that lights up the whole world. If I did consider one of these like a daughter, it’d be her.

“There’s another reason this kid is unique — she’ll charm the pants off anyone. She now knows that a disrespectful attitude isn’t going to get her anywhere, and she actually wants to make good grades, where before she couldn’t have cared less.

“Her home life is ridiculous. Her mom was abusive, so she went to live with her dad. He’s a good guy, he tries as hard as he can, but from one day to the next, they just can’t make ends meet. She’ll call me all the time and tell me, ‘We don’t have any food in the house.’

“It’s pretty hard to tell a kid to do their work when they go home and there’s no food to eat and they’re trying to figure out where they’re going to live the next day.

“She’s still not turning in some of her assignments. There’s sometimes a disconnect for teachers who only see that a kid hasn’t turned in her work, and don’t realize she’s home alone because her dad is working the midnight shift.”

Do you see her going to college?

Another long pause. “I’d like to think so.”

Hannah says not all parents agonize over their kids’ problems. However, “Some mothers want so badly for their kids to do well, but she’s got so many of them, and she’s working, she’s struggling to make ends meet, and she just can’t control every aspect of their lives.”

After three years doing battle on this war-torn home front, Hannah says, “My biggest fear is becoming jaded. You see things every day that hurt you because you care. So you have to guard against stopping caring.”

Hannah adds: “I would not think a lot of people would characterize my life as normal. I spend a lot of my time with the kids.” However, she lives near downtown San Diego and sets aside the weekends for herself. “Yeah, that’s my time.”

No matter where Hannah Van De Car’s young life takes her, she’s already covered ground that most people two and three times her age have never seen. And “her kids” are better for her trip.

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at

© Copyright 2012 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.

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