The Way of Mentoring — a Q&A with Crit Callebs

As a mentor and therapeutic facilitator at Newport Academy, Crit Callebs works with teens and their families. Crit uses traditional storytelling and awareness activities to guide them in discovering their inner strength. He focuses on connecting youth with the power of choice. And he helps people understand that they write their own life story. They create their own destiny. Hence, they have all the tools they need to heal themselves.

Crit is of Eastern Band Cherokee and Appalachian descent and lives on the Yakama Nation Indian Reservation. He is a cofounding member and executive director of the Peacekeeper Society, a Native American nonprofit that consists of tribal mentors, trainers, and wisdom keepers from various Indian nations. Crit is also a professional survival trainer and former instructor for the world-renowned Boulder Outdoor Survival School in Boulder, Utah. He has taught hundreds of people how to make traditional fires, build shelters, and respect the natural environment. 

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources: A Way of Mentoring

What Is the Essence of Mentoring?

On one level, mentoring is simply someone sharing their resources or knowledge to help someone else solve an issue or learn a skill. This is the most common and basic form of mentoring that many people do on a regular basis. Teaching someone how to sharpen a knife, balance their checkbook, drive a car, or cook a meal are all examples of mentoring. There are no special skills, education, or title needed to do this type of mentoring. If you have something to teach and share you can do this type of mentoring. It’s that simple.

On a deeper level, mentoring is about embracing a serious commitment to help change someone’s life in a huge way. It is more like an apprenticeship. You take someone under your wing to guide them to their goals. The mentor dedicates time, skills, knowledge, or whatever is required to assist the mentee. It becomes a true emotional and spiritual investment into that person’s life. Both mentor and mentee have a dedication to one another so that the knowledge and behaviors can be transferred between the two. Both people share obligations to maintain agreed-upon guidelines that dictate the mentoring experience. This type of mentoring depends upon absolute commitment to one another and requires the mentee to have a deep hunger to learn.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources: A Way of Mentoring

Why Do You Love Mentoring?

I have a strong passion for mentoring because I love to see young people turn their life around in a positive way. It is inspiring to see them connect their emotions with their actions and understand that they have the ability to change how they feel. It truly makes me happy when a young person makes a step to forgive someone who has wronged them, or ask for forgiveness and make amends. Or realize that their self-worth is not dependent upon what other people think or say about them. Guiding youth to discover their inner strength and use it to overcome the challenges of addiction, trauma, and abuse is an amazing feeling. Being a part of this process is an honor and a life-giving experience. There is no greater reward than being a mentor and helping people to regain their hope, dignity, and power.

What Specifically Do You Do With the Kids?

I do whatever it takes to break through to them and connect! Stories, fires, building outdoor shelters, awareness games, and anything I can teach them. Most of the time, I try to get the kids out of the clinical setting and into the woods or a more natural environment—someplace that has natural rhythms and sounds. Usually I make a fire and that becomes my teaching platform for the stories. Most times, I teach them how to build a fire using flint-and-steel method, no lighters allowed. I also mentor them on how to be respectful to the fire and take care of it just like a revered elder. This is always one of their favorite activities and they really engage. All kids immediately pay attention when the fire is built and the stories begin to flow.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources: A Way of Mentoring

The Power of Storytelling

Storytelling is one of my most effective methods of mentoring. Everyone loves stories because our brains were actually developed to learn through storytelling. I tell them traditional stories about young girls and boys who are attempting to overcome jealousy, greed, or dishonesty, or trying to bestow forgiveness. In the stories, the youth have to go through some trial or hardship to win back their integrity or the trust of another person.

These stories are not sugar-coated fairytales. They model real life with genuine morality struggles. The characters don’t always make it out alive. What’s so great is that the kids love them and it inspires them to make positive change. Not out of fear, but because they hear the truth of the story and make an internal choice to change based upon their own evaluation of it. Stories allow mentors to influence without directly telling mentees what to do or think.

I also do lots of activities that require kids to be physical and exercise their bodies. We have built shelters that can hold about 12 people, made out of dead trees, saplings, and twine. All of the trees and saplings were cut down and tied together by the kids. Our favorite one so far is called the Sanctuary and is covered in canvas tarps, which makes it completely dark inside when the door is shut. It’s the perfect environment to sing songs and tell stories that teach kids how to be caring, compassionate humans. This powerful work guides them to learn about the trials of life.

What Work Do You Do With Families?

Inspiration, hope, and gaining a new perspective are my main goals for families. This is accomplished through storytelling as well. I am able to take families on a journey through stories to see things they haven’t seen before or remember feelings that they thought were lost. Many of the stories I share are to invoke a renewed sense of hope that their child will survive and get healthy again. Most of the families are usually pretty weary, desperate, and even resentful. After struggling for long periods of time with their family issues, people need hope. So, I do my best to share a story that eases their pain and many times helps them to regain their direction.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources: The Way of Mentoring

I also mentor families on their responsibilities, because parents should be the ultimate mentors and number-one influences in a child’s life. Many of the stories I tell have some brutally honest truths. Therefore, these can be tough for parents to hear, especially when they are not upholding their side of the relationship. Sometimes it’s hard for a parent to see that they are enabling their child’s behavior through their actions.

The stories help reflect what is going on inside them, even if they don’t verbally acknowledge it. I’ll tell the harsh stories of children who lose their way because their parents were too busy, unaware, or unwilling to grant forgiveness or heal their own wounds. We always say, “No child gets to rehab solely on their own.” Many times, these stories can break through the barriers put up by resistant families. Furthermore, this can help move their emotions when they’re stuck.

What is the Outcome of Your Work After a Teen Has Spent Time With You?

The best way that I can judge the outcome of my work with the kids is by the responses they share with me or with the staff or their therapist. I’ve heard some overwhelmingly positive remarks from the kids themselves. Many times, they come up to me after our time together and tell me how a story impacted them in a good way. Usually they give me their interpretation of a story and share where their life is currently at, in relationship to the story.

I’ve heard remarks such as, “I think I’m ready to talk to my mom and dad now.” Or “I’m ready to try to forgive them.” When I hear these words come from the kids, I know for certain that a major shift in thinking has happened. The kids have connected the dots in their lives after internally evaluating the story. Then they realize that what they think or believe actually influences how they feel and treat other people.

Why Do You Think Kids Are So Engaged In Your Work?

Well, as a storyteller I have thousands of years of brain development and meaning-making on my side. We are storytelling creatures and have evolved to make sense out of our experiences through stories. Our brains are actually wired to hear stories and interpret them. This is how we come to a conclusion about the nature of our world. Kids and adults were created to hear stories and learn from them, regardless of what culture they come from or what status they hold. Many kids I talk to says they have ADD or ADHD, but as soon as I call a fire and begin telling stories, they are focused and listening immediately.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources: A Way of Mentoring

Plus, I make it clear that I truly care about them. I’m there for them in the role of an uncle. I absolutely mean this when I say it. It’s not contrived. I look at them as my nieces and nephews and that’s how I interact with them. And, I mentor them just like I would my own nieces and nephews on the reservation. I build a fire, tell them stories, and do hands-on activities to help teach them about life and to learn new skills. Mentoring is about creating a sense of family.  There’s no secret formula and it’s not complex. But you have to have a genuine love for them and willingness to listen or they’ll recognize you as a fake immediately.

Intuitively Mentoring

When I mentor the kids, I don’t follow a set protocol or agenda. I listen to their personal stories, read their emotions, and intuitively pick an activity to engage their senses. I also might tell a story to acknowledge their internal struggles. When you intuitively mentor, you can change the plan as needed or make up something on the spot to work with whatever is thrown at you.

I fully believe that they know I sincerely care for and love them. They can sense that I’m genuine, and I don’t hold back or baby them. They already know life is hard and understand that death exists. I share my experiences and stories about the real world. And they feel respected by my willingness to “get real” with them. We have some awesome talks that get down to the core issues.

 What Do Kids Take Away From Your Work?

One main theme I hope they take away is that tests and trials are a necessary part of life. You have to be tested through struggles and eventually overcome them, or you will never grow into your own power. I try to help them to see that whatever issue they are facing right now is a great opportunity. Every time you are tested by a hardship or problem, it forces you to go within and find your own personal strength, skill, or solution that is uniquely yours.

When you find those qualities, you realize that you have the ability to solve life’s problems. You can survive on your own, and find a way to make things happen. This allows you to tap into your inner grit, determination, creativity, and resolve. Each time you do it, you learn more about yourself. In addition, you learn and understand that you have an unbelievable toolbox of skills and traits to use. This natural process is a true path to self-empowerment and you earn the right to believe in yourself. Earning it is the key!

I also let them know that there is a flip side to this dynamic. If you are never tested or overcome a struggle on your own, then you can become totally powerless and helpless. Having everything handed down to you without earning it or working for it is self-defeating. It is entirely possible to grow up into an adult and still be unable to take care of yourself emotionally, physically, or spiritually. I know plenty of little boys living in a grown man’s body. Therefore, I encourage them to look at their time in treatment as the perfect opportunity to go inside and find that strong, mature man or woman looking to come out.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources: A Way of Mentoring

What Can Families Take Away From Your Work?

One of the big questions I ask families is, “What kind of human do you want your child to become?” Many families get this confused. They may think that they want their child to be a successful business owner, athlete, or professor. Parents may forget to relate the question to a human quality of the spirit and heart. Many parents don’t realize that they put an unbearable amount of pressure on their kids to succeed in the academic and professional world.

This is a consistent issue that I come across with many successful parents who had to work extremely hard to get to their professional level. They seem to feel that if their kids don’t engage in every sports activity or scholarly endeavor, they will not be successful adults. Parents tend to forget about actively mentoring their kids in forgiveness, honesty, empathy, dignity, and all of the traits that make you a successful human.

The Secret to Parenting Lies Within

I try to remind parents that their child will become exactly what they model. Many times what they model is an exhausted, disconnected, stressed-out person who is overwhelmed with the pace of modern life. So I share stories that help show this parent-child modeling dynamic. I want them to understand that parents are the number-one best mentor and influence that a child will have in their life. The best treatment for a child is a parent who can practice the qualities of a successful human. When I say “successful human,” I mean someone who can forgive when needed, be totally honest about their needs and limitations, and stay open to learning how to communicate more effectively. If our children were mentored to learn these qualities before sports and academics, they would be much more likely to succeed in all areas of life.

One other point I like to stress to families is that parenting is natural. There are no secret formulas or tricks that they don’t know about. Yes, we have different modern influences that make parenting tougher, but kids still need the same things they have for centuries: connected families who communicate openly, with parents being the number-one influence on the children.  I’ve worked with thousands of kids with addiction or behavioral issues. Every issue was the result of discord and disconnect within the family. I have yet to see a kid whose problems were not mainly a direct result of family strife. When the kids and the families learn how to communicate openly and forgive one another, things will get better over time. Families usually take comfort in knowing that there is no secret to healing and it is all well within their grasp.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources: The Way of Mentoring

What Life Experiences Do You Bring to This Work?

There is a saying in mentoring that you have to truly understand before you try to help someone else move forward in their life. I heard storyteller Michael Meade say it this way: “You can’t initiate someone unless you yourself have been initiated.” What this means is that a person can’t help someone get to a certain level of understanding unless they have already reached that level of understanding themselves.

For example, I couldn’t inspire kids to forgive someone who has hurt them unless I have actually forgiven someone who has hurt me. You have to have real hands-on experience with what you are talking about and have actually walked down that road before you try to lead someone else down it. Because if you haven’t, most kids and adults will sense that you are being fake and probably don’t have any real experience with it. It’ll feel like you’re just reciting what you read in a therapy textbook.

I have experienced most of the same situations that the kids and families are going through. I have successfully dealt with extreme poverty, alcohol and drug addiction, violence and domestic abuse, broken families, divorces, suicide and a host of other challenges in my life. When I talk to kids and families about these issues, I do it straight from the heart and from direct experience. I know how crushing it feels to be too poor to pay for electricity or running water. And, I know what it feels like to be desperate and addicted to drugs. I also know how lonely and dark it gets when your family member commits suicide. I’ve walked down these terrible roads and survived. So I can take someone’s hand and walk with them as they make their journey.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources: The Way of Mentoring

The Cycle of Mentoring

I have also had the great opportunity to be mentored by numerous elders and friends who passed on great wisdom and teachings. It can be hard to mentor someone in a true, life-giving way unless you have already experienced that type of relationship. I have had many elders dedicate lots of time to teach me how to make a bow, learn songs, identify plants, create traditional medicines, and numerous activities that support our traditional way of life. Many of them patiently watched me as I awkwardly tried to learn whatever they were trying to teach. Therefore I learned how to be patient when someone is trying something for the first time.

I am indebted to the souls who took the time to invest in my life. There is no greater use of time and energy than that spent upon those willing to learn. Everything that comes from me belongs to people who passed it down to me. I am a reflection of everyone who has ever taught me something. I am responsible for doing my best with what has been gifted to me. That is the way of mentoring.

Newport Academy Empowering Teens Resources: The Way of Mentoring

About Crit Callebs 

Crit Callebs travels throughout the United States sharing traditional stories and facilitating workshops with tribal organizations, universities, K–12 schools, and teen treatment centers. He has been a featured storyteller at Harvard University and was a keynote speaker for Washington State University’s 12th Annual Globalization, Diversity, and Education conference. Crit cofounded the Peacekeeper Society to empower adults and youth through cultural activities, storytelling, and learning wilderness survival skills.