One of my best experiences as a mentor was when I inherited an IT department where the average age was 18. There were many men and one woman and no leaders. I sniffed around for who might be good at what in preparation for a departmental reorg. The woman, Sari, looked homeless at best, a drug addict at worst.
I started taking steps to fire her, but she kept turning in the best work each week. So when I met with her alone, I asked her a little bit about her situation — what does she want to do, what sort of experience does she have.
It took only a little prodding for her to tell me that she was 16 and a high school dropout and she ran away from home. I made it my mission to get her back into school. I gave her responsibilities that she would succeed at to show her that she was smart and capable. For months, I met with her each week: She told me that her family had drug and alcohol problems; I told her if she would look like she could command authority then I could make her a supervisor. Miraculously, almost overnight, she had a new haircut and a new wardrobe.
After two promotions, Sari gained enough self-confidence from work to apply to college two years later. I couldn't have been more proud writing a recommendation. Today Sari is a rising star in the software industry. And while she always thanks me for helping her to get back on solid footing, I am always thankful to her for teaching me how much we can do for each other, even in the workplace. Sari single-handedly gave my work meaning.