By: Tami Silverman
President and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute
Talk to most successful individuals and you’ll hear stories of how caring adults – mentors – played key roles in guiding them on their journeys. Research abounds about the benefits of high-quality mentoring relationships, whether informal or arranged. Mentors expand children’s support networks, help them grow into well-rounded citizens and build important skills.
When we ensure the healthy development of the next generation, they will pay that back through productive and responsible citizenship. Yet too many kids, especially boys, who want and need mentors don’t have one. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Indiana says boys make up 80 percent of the waitlist for its 13-county service area. BBBSNEI reports that boys will wait, on average, about three years for a Big Brother, but some will age out of the system without ever being placed with a mentor. Alex Clinger with BBBSNEI says only one out of every five volunteers they see is male. “We are at an all-time low in terms of male volunteers in our program,” Clinger says. “Male volunteers are needed now more than ever!” January is National Mentoring Month – the perfect time for caring adults to step up to fill these critical roles.
Mentoring plays a big role in developing healthy students. David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership says mentoring provides protective and supportive relationships throughout a child’s upbringing. Mentoring’s key educational benefits include increased graduation rates, lower dropout rates, better attitudes about school, higher college enrollment rates and higher educational aspirations.
The benefits of mentoring extend beyond academics. A Big Brothers Big Sisters study found youth who met regularly with their mentors were 46 percent less likely to start using illegal drugs, and 27 percent less likely to start drinking. Mentees in high-quality programs were also less likely to hit another youth and had lower delinquency rates. A 2013 study identified the greatest benefit of mentoring as a reduction in symptoms of depression, a critical finding, as almost one in four youth at the beginning of the study had reported worrisome levels of these symptoms.
Mentoring’s value can be amplified for kids facing the greatest hurdles. The American Institutes for Research found mentoring initiatives often focus on African American boys because many in low-income communities are at high risk for school failure, school exclusion, low educational attainment, gang involvement, substance abuse and criminal justice involvement.
Research funded by the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey found that mentoring initiatives helped boys create and develop healthy identities, build their self-belief, and facilitated the skill development and social connections needed to succeed.
However, some well-intentioned, yet poorly structured, mentoring programs can have a negative impact. MENTOR outlines elements of strong mentoring programs. Programs must set clear expectations for mentors and the mentees. Mentors should commit to at least one year of weekly face-to-face meetings. Screenings should include an in-person interview, reference and background check. A mentor should complete at least two hours of training prior to being matched with a mentee to increase the likelihood of creating positive matches. Ongoing training and support is also essential.
Caring, empathetic, and dedicated adults who serve as mentors can be vital guides to help kids successfully transition into adulthood. Yet one in three kids is still waiting for a mentor. To find quality mentoring programs near you, visit online and click on the Indiana Mentoring Partnership link. By stepping up and signing up, you’ll not only improve the life of a child, you’ll enrich your own life and community, while honoring those who helped you succeed.