Alayna Ritz is so small she practically goes unnoticed, just another face in a crowd.
But the moment words flow from her mouth, she instantly grabs your attention.
She is feisty and honest, quick-witted and self-deprecating, impervious and sensitive, sometimes seemingly in one elongated and vigorous breath.
Her indelible narrative offers a glimpse at an old soul and a perspective far beyond her 16 years. She is a student at Willmar’s Area Learning Center and is employed as an aide for vulnerable adults. It’s a rung on the ladder to nursing school. She hopes to be working full time in the medical field by age 25.
She lives with her mom, Amy. But it’s temporary.
Amy recently suffered a series of strokes and is unable to work. She will soon move in with family while she rehabs. Alayna will move in with friends.
She’s taking it in stride.
“Been through worse,” Alayna says, on this mild April day over coffee in a second-floor nook at LuLu Beans in Willmar.
Amy sits next to her daughter, her eyes fixated on her. Julie Asmus sits on the other side of the table, perpetually grinning and nursing a warm drink.
Julie is a former police officer, long respected within the ranks of the force and the community she served.
There was a time Alayna and Julie may have met under different circumstances, a time when the tumult lighting up Alayna’s then-muddled brain threatened to derail any semblance of a future she had. She was angry at a drunk father. She was anxious over her parents’ divorce. She felt hatred for classmates who’d ridicule her plight.
“Let’s just put it this way,” Alayna says. “I could have made some bad choices. Drugs and alcohol. All that. It could have been a struggle. ... But I met Julie.”
A friend, a mentor
Minnesota Business and Professional Women (BPW) is an organization looking to expand networking opportunities for women across the state. Thus, its members wear many hats: they are educators, fundraisers, entrepreneurs, mentors.
It’s the latter that singularly intrigues Julie.
For more than two decades she has been involved with BPW’s Willmar chapter and its mentoring program. The program pairs women with young girls identified by aides within area school districts as those who may benefit from an adult presence outside their home environment.
The program brought Julie and Alayna together more than seven years ago, when Alayna was 9, and has allowed Julie and other female mentors to craft relationships with dozens of girls from across the area.
Through the program, the mentors connect with and spend one-on-one time with the girls each week.
They often talk over the phone or meet for lunch or a soft drink. The program is lengthy — the girls attend from fifth through ninth grades — and the mentors attempt to use this time to impart attributes the girls can carry with them through teendom and into adulthood: empathy, volunteerism, teamwork, etiquette, friendship and valuing one’s self, to list but a few.
“We deal with the subjects that impact their lives,” Julie says. “One recent example was the lockdown at the (Willmar) senior high. That incident allowed us to form a discussion with the girls on what they would do if they witness a fight, if they were the victim of a fight, how they would report a fight. It provided us with an excellent teachable moment on just how to react in a real-life situation.”
The girls also gather monthly for a joint group recreation or diversion.
Those activities are as varied as clearing area roadsides of trash and debris through the Adopt-A-Highway program, attending a theatrical performance that may have women’s issues as a central theme or simply gathering for a night of bowling or a communal meal.
During April’s activity, the group gathered in a kitchen in the lower floor of Building 1802 on the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar. There, they attended a food preparation and cooking session conducted by Willmar-based nutritionist Julie Rote.
Sophie Guerra, an 11-year-old with long dark bangs and a carefree disposition, was on hand with her mentor, Nancy Welch.
Sophie is from a broken home and has been active in the mentoring program for about five months.
Nancy, too, is a relative newbie to the program but says its impact on Sophie is already evident.
“She’s more outgoing,” Nancy says. “ … more polite and at ease. More comfortable in a group environment.”
“... And I feel like I’m being a better person,” Sophie adds.
It’s music to Julie’s ears.
“Ultimately, you want to know the program makes a difference,” she says.
A life less ordinary
A few years ago, Alayna’s uncle was diagnosed with cancer. They shared a close bond, one that grew stronger as he began chemotherapy treatments.
When he died, Alayna was distraught. Julie was faithful in her support.
“She just took me under her wing,” Alayna said. “I just liked being around her. Just being with her and having that release helped tons.”
It has been two years since Alayna completed the mentoring program, but she continues to carry its lessons with her.
Three women of varying ages reside at the group home where Alayna is employed. She folds their laundry and makes them supper. She likes to engage them with banter. She wants them to know she cares. It gives her perspective, she says.
When she’s not working, she listens to country music and hip-hop, and has an affinity for hockey. Those moments keep her grounded, she says.
She’s also fostering a relationship with a young man with Southern roots and whose parlance, she jokes, is perhaps starting to rub off on her.
“People always ask me if I’m Southern. I dunno know why,” she says, using an exaggerated pronunciation of “why” for comedic effect. Then comes a sardonic smirk.
In many ways, Alayna, that wit is your best friend, wouldn’t you say?
“Yeah … ” she says with a laugh. “Look, I feel like without this program I would be very mad ... a mad, mad child. I’d say judgmental. Dad wasn’t around. He was just John to me. I had struggles with my brother. My mum was and is my No. 1. But the program taught me to be more accepting of that stuff. I understand things better now. Stuff is never as bad as it could be. You can just laugh stuff off. And it helps Julie is such a happy person. She’s kinda contagious.”
Alayna says her brother is still finding his way.
Amy is assured Alayna has found hers.
“It’s hard to explain,” Amy says when quizzed on how being a mentee has shaped Alayna. “I think it comes down to her being able to be part of something she ordinarily may not have been able to be a part of. And her grasp on the fact she was able to be a part of it is big, too. I’m so thankful she had that opportunity.”