Mentor of year is part friend, part mother hen, part adviser


PHOTO: Tess Larson, left, laughs with Hawa Ibrahim as they scan items for Ibrahim’s baby shower registry at Target on Friday. Larson, 26, has mentored Ibrahim, 20, for the past four years.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on

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By Erin Grace / World-Herald columnist

The Mentor of the Year stands on the concrete stoop in her thin black blazer, freezing.

“Rahema,” Tess Larson says to a child barely tall enough to see out the backdoor screen. “Where’s Hawa?”

The girl is joined by a little sister who is too short to see out, so she hops up and down, a bobber of purple headscarf and grin.

Hawa, Rahema says, “is making makeup.”

Larson isn’t surprised.

In six years of mentoring three girls who now are young women, Larson knows that punctuality isn’t always a priority.

It’s one of any number of lessons she has learned in this somewhat vague role where she is part mother hen, part academic adviser and part friend.

She has had to set boundaries. Know when to dispense advice and when to shut up and listen. And learn about extended families, like Hawa’s. The Somali refugee lives with her mother, four sisters and five nieces in a three-bedroom apartment.

Tess sees mentoring as a years-long journey that takes her outside the somewhat safe and predictable walls of a school or nonprofit and into the lives of others.

On Thursday, she will be honored for this view and her work. The Midlands Mentoring Partnership, a consortium of metro-area mentoring organizations, will name Tess its Mentor of the Year.

Tess has been mentor for six years running to Gabbi Jones, for five years to DaNaya Johnson and for four years to Hawa Ibrahim, who back then was an opinionated but promising 16-year-old.

Today Hawa is married, a tired and nauseated 20-year-old mother-to-be whose baby is due in March.

Hawa breezes past her two nieces and meets Tess on the stoop of the public housing apartment. She wrangles herself into the passenger seat of Tess’ 2005 Honda Civic.

Their destination is Target, where Larson will help Hawa register for baby items.

Mother-to-be and mentor march past Target’s greeting cards, the acid-wash jeans and toddler girl clothes. Hawa stares a little wistfully. Where on earth are the boy clothes?

This is a first for Tess, 26. She is single, has no children. She just wrapped up a dual master’s degree program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in social work and public administration. And she just landed her first big job, a policy position at Susie Buffett’s Sherwood Foundation.

Tess has brothers. She used to baby-sit. But she’s not really sure how to advise Hawa. Which baby-bottle nipple? Which binkie? Crib sheets when Hawa has no crib at home?

Tess falls back on practical wisdom: Just because you scan it, she tells Hawa, doesn’t mean someone will buy it for you. Especially the big-ticket items, like the Eddie Bauer car seat. (Hawa scans it anyway).

“How about shampoo?” Tess asks.

Tess holds up a packet of tiny, pastel-colored mitts.

“You put these on baby’s hands so he can’t scratch himself,” she says.

Tess spent much of her life at the Rose Theater and later at Girls Inc. Her mother, Roberta Wilhelm, held prominent roles at each, and her father, James Larson, worked for years at the Rose. This made Tess an unofficial mentor to lots of kids.

But at 20 — Hawa’s age — she itched to be an official mentor. She saw how girls and their mentors benefited.

Girls Inc. gave her Gabbi, a fashion-conscious middle-schooler whose friend DaNaya usually tagged along. Within a year, Tess was mentoring DaNaya, too.

Tess would pick them up from their north Omaha homes and take them shopping or to her place — initially her dorm room, later her apartment and in grad school, her folks’ basement. Tess wanted them to see that you couldn’t have a fabulous place of your own while you were paying tuition.

Both Gabbi and DaNaya come from stable, hardworking families that value education.

With these two, Tess was a big sister whose family home was a fun place to carve pumpkins on Halloween. She told Gabbi to stay at Girls Inc., if for no other reason than to be eligible for one of the organization’s college scholarships.

She urged DaNaya not to burden herself with big student loans.

Gabbi and DaNaya graduated from Central High last year. Gabbi is studying pre-nursing at UNO. DaNaya is a chemistry major at UNL. Both say they look up to Tess like a second mother and still call on her for help. Last week, Gabbi sent Tess a school paper to edit. DaNaya called about an oh-so-early 8 a.m. class.

Tess has taken them for manicures and meals, had them over for cookie-baking sleepovers and taught them to drive using her Honda Civic.

Four years ago, Tess added Hawa to her fold.

She had met bright, plucky Hawa at the South Omaha Girls Inc. Sometimes they clashed. Mostly they clicked.

Hawa is taking classes at Metropolitan Community College. In a paper she wrote, she had underlined the words: “afraid” and “determination.”

Determination was the word of the day when she and Tess tackled Target to knock out that baby registry.

After aisles of sleepers, bottles, and bibs, after choices about dinosaurs or ducks, Hawa has to sit.

She plops down on Target’s floor, looking fairly miserable.

Tess ends their search, fetches some fresh fruit and gets Hawa home.

The Mentor of the Year drives away. But she calls Hawa a little later and urges her to call the doctor.

Hawa does. Turns out she was dehydrated, but she is OK now.

Tess is proud of Hawa. Of Gabbi and DaNaya.

Witnessing their growth has been the mentor’s reward.

“I didn’t know that would be so great to watch,” Tess says. “They have just grown into such bright young women.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1136,

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