Linda Dahlstrom and Nicole Geissler share their experiences
Facing the death of a parent at age 9 is difficult for any child. When the reason for the death is AIDS, the child has very few, if any, friends she can talk to. Nicole Geissler, now 28, recalls why she got involved with Rise n' Shine: 'As my stepfather's health deteriorated, my mom wanted me to have someone outside of the family who understood what was going on with me. She had heard about Rise n' Shine and how it provided mentors and a community for children affected by HIV/AIDS.'
Volunteer mentors at Inspire Youth Project commit to one year of weekly, one-on-one time with their mentees and often become one of the most important role models in that child's life. After losing several friends to AIDS in the mid-1990s, Linda Dahlstrom felt compelled to do something. 'I had volunteered as a writer for various AIDS organizations, but when I heard about the great work at Rise n' Shine and the number of children waiting for mentors, I knew that's where I should put my heart. There were children just waiting to have an adult in their lives who would spend time with them, listen to them and support them. I was 26 at the time and didn't have any children yet. I didn't really know what to expect, but I knew I could be there and listen.'
With guidance and training from Rise n' Shine, Dahlstrom became a mentor and was matched with Geissler just a couple of weeks before Geissler's stepfather passed away. When asked what it was like to have Dahlstrom as her mentor, Geissler recalls, 'Children growing up in homes affected by HIV are often unable to have friends over or even talk to friends about what is going on. So having someone you can trust and count on is huge. Linda was the one I always ran to for advice or just to talk. Some of the best memories I have as a child are those I made with Linda.'
Unfortunately, the death of her stepfather was not the last of Geissler's hardships growing up. Through the years, she also lost her best friend to suicide, suffered abuse and serious depression. 'Linda was a lifesaver - without her, I wouldn't be where I am today,' Geissler states. 'She was my protector and my greatest motivator. She saw me through some of the toughest times of my life and was also there for the best moments.' Some of those best moments include Geissler graduating from high school and earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Fashion Marketing and Management. 'It was always a dream for me to be one of the first members of my family to graduate from college. By having Linda in my life, I was able to see what a person can do to create the life they want to live.'
Dahlstrom, however, is quick to add, 'Being a mentor has been one of the richest experiences of my life. I've always felt odd referring to myself as a mentor because the real mentor has been Nicole. She taught me a lot about myself, what's important in life, and the supreme gift of having another person trust you, laugh with you, and then walk through the darkest times with you - sometimes knowing you can't make it better, but you can be there.'
Over the years, Dahlstrom became a mother, then suffered the tragic loss of her first son to bacterial meningitis. 'Although at the time I was rocked by grief and could barely function, Nicole courageously showed up for me - knowing that all she could offer was her simply being there. At my son's funeral, she whispered in my ear, 'You still have me.' The emotions at the time have overtaken my memory of the day, but I still vividly recall her words and how powerful and comforting they were.'
Geissler, now working on her career and optimistic about the future, believes having Dahlstrom in her life changed everything. 'Our lives were forever changed by the bond that was created between us. This is the type of friendship that is needed for children who have so much adversity in their lives and struggle to find their way.'
It is with that in mind that in her last year of life, Janet Trinkaus, founder of Rise n' Shine, changed the organization's name to Inspire Youth Project and opened its doors to serve more at-risk youth in the community. In addition to serving children affected by HIV/AIDS, Inspire Youth Project now continues the great work that Childhaven and First Place do by providing services to children who have suffered abuse, neglect, homelessness and other forms of childhood trauma.
Twenty years after they first met, Geissler and Dahlstrom still regularly meet for dinner. 'She's gone from being the child whose height I measured in my kitchen doorway to the beautiful, strong and resilient woman she is today,' Dahlstrom recalls. 'I'm so grateful to have Nicole, and for the rest of my life, come what may, Nicole will also always have me.'
With this knowledge, Geissler's heart fills with joy as she continues to plan for the future. 'Looking back on how much Linda did for me, I can't think of a better way to honor her and Janet than to become a mentor myself. I know there are plenty of children out there in similar situations to when I was growing up, desperately needing a listening ear or a helping hand.'
Founded in 1988, Rise n' Shine was the first organization in the nation to provide services for children affected by HIV/AIDS. Through summer camps, support groups, mentoring, year-round advocacy and a new college scholarship program for its graduates, Inspire Youth Project (formerly Rise n' Shine) provides the consistency and long-term nurturing that every child needs in order to grow and contribute to society.
For more information on how to get involved, volunteer or donate to Inspire Youth Project, please visit: inspireyouthproject.org.
Courtesy of Inspire Youth Project
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