Eighteen million kids in the United States need mentors. Some come from single-parent homes and could use additional adult support in their lives. Some have behavioral issues, or are not doing quite as well in school as they could be, and would benefit from some focused attention from another adult.
According to the nonprofit MENTOR, only 3 million kids are in one-on-one mentoring relationships with an adult. This leaves a gap of 15 million kids that could benefit from a mentor.
Youth who have established relationships with mentors appreciate them. But such connections are built slowly, with steady interaction and long-term commitment.
Central to the experience is shared activities, such as going to ballgames and restaurants. Pairs may do these activities anywhere from a few times a week to a few times a month. What’s important is the quality of interaction.
For three years, Adrian Mayoral, 18, of Portland, Ore., has had mentors through Minds Matter, a national nonprofit serving high-achieving, low-income students in eight cities. He said he and his current mentor, Casey Campbell, got together about every week during the school year, before Adrian left for college.
Adrian credits Campbell with helping him write better, as well as providing companionship, too. “The program sponsored like us going to like a Blazer [basketball] game,” he said. “We’ve also just kind of gone out of the way and talked about stuff. One mentor came over to my house and my parents like cooked dinner for him.”
Besides having fun, perhaps the biggest benefit for mentees is that they have someone to talk to and lean on in situations where another adult isn’t there. Brenai Stockton, 12, Indianapolis, has been with her mentor, Tonja Eagen, for more than four years. “She helps me make good decisions, like if in school I made a bad decision, she tells me what I could’ve done to made it better. … She’s somebody to talk to about things that I really don’t like to talk to my mom about,” she said.
Roland Wilson, 15, Indianapolis, who has been with mentor John Hammersly for a year, says that Hammersly has encouraged him in his career goals. “I want to be a fireman when I grow up, and my mom is talking, ‘Nah, you ain’t being a fireman. You gonna fall down on the ground, your shoes will be burning.’ And I told my Big Brother, he was like ‘Just follow your dreams.’”
Brenai and Roland found mentors through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana, which goes through a multi-step screening and matching process. They also ask mentors to commit for at least a year.
Claudine Nkurinziza, 17, of Winooski, Vt., started out with a Big Sister when she moved to the United States from Tanzania. She decided to investigate the DREAM program when it came to her neighborhood.
DREAM, which stands for Directing through Recreation, Education, Adventure and Mentoring, was started in 1999 by students at Dartmouth College who wanted to help youth living in nearby subsidized housing. “When they told me that we go to a lot of adventures, I was like ‘Cool! Getting a college mentor who would help me out with everything, it would be really fun and I would get to know about life other than high school,’” she said.
All of Claudine’s expectation were fulfilled when she was paired up with Meghan McCormick, who just graduated. “We go to the movies a lot, we hang out at a café and talk, we go to the mall and chill there. Sometimes I go to her place and hang out there, and sometimes she comes to my place and we hang out here. We go outside and play at a park.”
Despite good intentions and well-developed screening, some matches falter, often because mentors become busy or their lives change. That happened to Claudine before she found McCormick. “At first I doubted having a mentor because the first mentor I had graduated and then the next one made a lot of promises that she didn’t keep,” she said.
Taylor Sharp, 16, knows similar disappointment. She has been with her present Big Sister, Vanessa Grider, for three years, but before that she had had two mentors who quit -- one worked a lot and didn’t have sufficient time, and the other didn’t want to be in the match anymore.
Roland, too, lost a previous Big Brother, who left the program when he got married. “I was mad,” he recalled.
However, the majority have success stories like Adrian’s. With help from his mentor, he was able to secure a full scholarship to Pacific Lutheran University in Washington. “He basically kind of helped me first of all choose the college, and then got information from people,” he said.
Claudine, too, is getting college advice from her mentor. “Right now I’m checking out colleges. My mentor encourages me every single day, she tells me I can do anything,” she said. “I am getting myself into college, getting ready, studying and everything, and she’s going to be there for me, even though she graduated.”
These youth appreciate what their mentors do for them. All acknowledge that they have grown through the experience. When asked what her life would have been like without Grider, who works for BBBS, Taylor says she’d be nobody. “Vanessa really changed my life, so I think like without her, I don’t really feel equal.”
Brenai is interested in being a mentor someday. “I want to give back,” she said. “My Big Sister, she gave me a lot of things, like not just buy me stuff, just like giving me good advice.”
“Big Sisters and Big Brothers, they’re fun to have,” added Roland. “You’ll learn more with them and talk more with them.”
Assistant editor Victoria Kreyden, 16, and reporters Caroline Gardner, 13, Elizabeth Papandria, 13, and Joshua Segaran, 14, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press