From bards of old to modern-day movie classics, history has richly provided us with stories of mentors—those wise and trusted counselors or teachers. The old adage “To the world, you may be just one person. But to one person, you can be the world” is just as true today as ever.
By Sylvia Ney
Mentoring helps because it guarantees people that someone cares about them. A child need not be alone in dealing with day-to-day challenges. Think back. Did you always know how to study for a test, deal with a bully, or make plans for college? Do you remember wanting your first car, a new apartment, or looking for a part-time job? Simple things that now seem easy or straightforward to you may appear to be a complete mystery to a young person. Mentors provide their mentees with an experienced friend who is there to help in any number of situations.
Mentoring is crucial to positive youth development. One of the largest mentoring studies ever conducted supports this thinking. A five-year study sponsored by Big Brothers Big Sisters (which you can learn more about at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130115143850.htm) found that children with mentors were more confident and had fewer behavioral problems. In general, young people showed increased belief in their abilities to succeed in school and felt less anxiety related to peer pressure.
A study conducted by North Carolina State University (which can be reviewed at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091104161837.htm) showed that youth from disadvantaged backgrounds are twice as likely to attend college when they have a mentor.
A study of African American youth conducted by the University of Georgia (which you can read more about at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110512171527.htm) showed how important mentors are to teens with hardships. For example, young people who had experienced discrimination, family stressors, and abuse were less likely to break the law or engage in substance abuse if they had a positive mentoring relationship.
While many such studies focus on the benefits of mentoring disadvantaged teens, it’s easy to see that a mentoring relationship can be beneficial to any age, regardless of income level. A positive relationship with a nonparent mentor can create a trusted relationship between two people where questions, advice, knowledge, and discussion flow openly.
This is positive news, but many people fail to see the benefits to the mentors as well as the mentees. Many colleges and businesses now offer mentoring programs to their neighborhoods, students, interns, and employees; companies such as Jumpstart, a national early education organization, recruit and train college students and community corps members to serve preschool children in low-income neighborhoods.
“By impacting an entrepreneur, a mentor has an opportunity to impact the community,” says Anthony Hughes, Director of JumpStart’s mentoring program. “By using their knowledge and experience to support up-and-coming entrepreneurs, mentors are helping drive growth in companies that can create jobs and generate revenue. Mentors are impacting their local economies and making the region they live in a more exciting and vibrant place. That’s a pretty fulfilling way to donate your time.”
Mentors should understand they are not meant to replace a parent, guardian or teacher. A mentor is not a disciplinarian or decision-maker. Instead, a mentor echoes positive values and cultural heritage.
If you are looking to serve as a mentor or to connect with others serving in that capacity, try these national groups with local branches:
- Big Brothers Big Sisters – For more than 100 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters has operated under the belief that inherent in every child is the ability to succeed and thrive in life. As the nation’s largest mentoring donor and volunteer-supported mentoring network, Big Brothers Big Sisters makes meaningful, monitored matches between adult volunteers and children ages 6 through 18 in communities across the country. They strive to develop positive relationships that have a direct and lasting effect on the lives of young people. http://www.bbbs.org
- The National Mentoring Partnership – a unifying champion for expanding quality youth mentoring relationships in the United States. For nearly 25 years, the group has served the mentoring field by providing a public voice, developing and delivering resources to mentoring programs nationwide and promoting quality for mentoring through standards, cutting-edge research and state of the art tools. Their mission is to fuel the quality and quantity of mentoring relationships for America’s young people and to close the mentoring gap by collaborating with their network of affiliate partnerships and more than 5,000 mentoring programs in all 50 states. http://www.mentoring.org/
- The MENTOR Network – a leading health and human services provider, but they are also much more. This group is a network of caring people who share a mission—to help individuals of all abilities thrive in their homes and communities. The network is built upon trusted partnerships between the individuals served and their families, MENTOR’s employees, its foster parents and host home providers and payors and public partners. Together they offer adults, children, and their families innovative, quality services and supports that lead to growth and independence, regardless of the physical, intellectual or behavioral challenges they face. http://www.thementornetwork.com/
- American Corporate Partners – a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting veterans in their transition from the armed services to the civilian workforce. With the help of business professionals nationwide, ACP offers veterans tools for long-term career development through mentoring, career counseling, and networking opportunities. With the belief that one-on-one relationships enhance an atmosphere of mutual understanding, respect, and support, ACP aims to strengthen the connection between corporate America and veteran communities. http://www.acp-usa.org/
- Texas MENTOR – Founded in 1990, they opened their first office in Houston in order to support children and families at risk. Now committed to supporting children and families in reaching their home permanency goals, they are proud to offer adoptive services to children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as youth with medical, emotional, and behavioral challenges. It is their goal to find safe and nurturing homes where children and adolescents can grow and develop to their fullest potential. A licensed child placing agency offering an array of home and community-based services to children and adolescents as well as their families, they have facilitated many successful adoptions throughout the state. Texas MENTOR offers assistance with the adoption process and ongoing support for children who are in permanent legal custody. They specialize in recruiting adoptive parents for children in their Therapeutic Foster Care program and helping other foster children with complex needs. The adoptive services include a careful matching process and a range of supports throughout the process for the child and their pre-adoptive family. www.tx-mentor.com
- Change Happens! – formerly known as Families Under Urban & Social Attack, this is a non-profit community-based organization. With 25 years experience, they offer more than 18 free programs such as HIV Prevention and Counseling, Homeless Supportive Services, HYPE: Helping Youth Prevent Engaging in Risky Behavior, JUMP START: workforce development, RESCUE: drug prevention and more. They also provide after-school and summer programs for youth in the Third Ward Houston. This group has received recognition from the Texas State Legislature for outstanding performance in providing application assistance to uninsured families. They’ve also been awarded numerous certificates of achievement from the Department of State Health Services and been chosen by other state and federal officials to provide ongoing assessment training and technical assistance to other start-up agencies. http://www.changehappenstx.org/
Mentoring: Do you have what it takes?
Imagine an hour impacting a life. Many studies focus on the effects of mentorship, but not much time is spent examining what successful mentors actually do. Here are some common traits to consider.
- Show Support and Interest – The most important role of a mentor is to support and encourage. When an individual feels down, upset with others, or unhappy in their life situations, mentors are beside them, letting them talk about anything and reminding them of their innate value. Everybody needs a good reliable sounding board, second opinion, and sometimes just emotional support. Mentors engage an individual to understand all aspects of their lives, interests, and fears. They are not afraid to get personal and show the mentee there is value in their ideas, feelings, and moods.
- Be an Active Listener – Mentors listen first and speak later. Many students and even adults in new situations mention how little they feel like they are heard by others. Instead, they feel inferior when they have ideas or questions. Giving someone a chance to express and work out issues on their own is often more effective than just providing what someone else feels is “the right answer.” Sometimes, the best way to help is to allow an individual to work through an obstacle or problem. True growth comes from feeling able to succeed on one’s own. Mentors should always be ready to listen and offer advice or guidance only when asked.
- Set a Good Example – “Modeling” has long been an effective teaching tool, but it’s also a highly effective mentoring ability. Exemplifying traits of a successful and well-adjusted individual include acknowledging when a mentor has made a mistake or simply doesn’t know something. When an individual sees others willing to learn new skills and making mistakes, it enables them to be confident enough to push past their comfort zones and attempt new things. A good mentor helps the mentee know we all make mistakes, and that is how you learn. And if a mentor expresses an interest in some knowledge or ability that mentee has that they do not, they are further fostering a confidence-building environment.
- Fostering Good Decision–Making – Good mentors don’t judge or impose their own beliefs. When obstacles seem overwhelming, mentors can help put challenges into perspective, illustrate choices or show multiple sides of a situation, and model skills necessary to make the right move. Instead of just instructing what to do, they help mentees believe they have the ability to make good choices for themselves. Knowing they are not being judged helps someone to think through decisions critically, sifting for what is valued and becoming a more informed adult.
There’s no formula for a perfect mentor. Different personalities and communication styles naturally make some mentoring methods more compatible than others. The key is always to find something that works with an individual’s unique situation. As the Harvard Business Review puts it, “Mentoring can take many shapes and forms—the key is to find the right kind of advice from the right person at the right time.”