Robert Patterson’s daily focus is kids. As CEO of Kids Can Community Center, he and his staff work with children through early education and out-of-school programs — nearly 900 in all, according to the group’s 2020-2021 annual report.
One additional touchpoint, one-on-one mentoring, hasn’t fared as well. The program, which provides guidance and encouragement for 7- to 13-year-olds, had grown to 20 volunteer mentors by 2019, the limit Kids Can’s physical space would allow. But the onset of the pandemic cut that number drastically.
“We pretty successfully navigated COVID in our other programs the past two years, but I’ll be honest, we have not as successfully navigated the mentoring aspect,” he said. “We did try virtual and that kind of worked, but it was more of a Band-Aid and not a long-term solution.
“Now that we’ve moved into a post-vaccinated world, we’re starting from scratch, rethinking things to get new mentors in here. Best practices and research show in the life of a young one, a caring adult who is nonjudgmental, provides support, provides encouragement or is just a listening ear is pretty impactful. One adult can be more impactful than a whole slew of other programs. To me, it’s really as simple as that.”
Across the state and around the country, the story is the same. Despite the demonstrated benefits of mentoring on youth and a relatively short time commitment in most programs, fears over the pandemic have severely impacted the number of adults willing or able to step up and give their time to impact a life.
However, as January’s National Mentoring Month dawns, nonprofit leaders are undeterred in their efforts to recruit volunteers, stressing the critical nature of mentoring on youth outcomes.
“The transition coming out of the pandemic has created some very challenging obstacles for everyone,” said Deb Denbeck, president and CEO of Partnership 4 Kids, serving 3,100 children and youth in 16 Omaha schools. “It’s not only recruiting volunteers but reengaging young people, because isolation has really done a number on everybody, particularly our youth.”
Partnership 4 Kids mentors provide reading buddies, instruction and direction for students in pre-K through high school and beyond. The time investment is low — just a couple hours per month — but the impact is lifelong.
“I think sometimes people are fearful they don’t know how to interact with young people. They don’t think they would be a good mentor,” Denbeck said. “But I can tell you, what makes the biggest difference in a mentor are the ability to listen, to provide guidance, to meet young people where they’re at and being positive. Our young people need people to help guide them, it’s really critical.”
The Impact of Mentoring
The impact of a mentor can play a substantial role in a young person’s long-term academic and professional success. As a national report, “The Mentoring Effect” noted, young people at-risk of not completing high school, but who had a mentor,” were 55% more likely to go to college than those who didn’t. Mentored youth were also 81% more likely to participate in sports or extracurricular activities, 78% more likely to volunteer in the community and more than twice as likely to hold a leadership position in a club or sports team.
“A lot of kids from all sectors of our state and all sectors of our society are experiencing trauma, depression or some kind of mental health impact from all that came with the pandemic,” said Deborah Neary, a member of the Nebraska State Board of Education. “I believe that’s the reason mentoring is needed now more than ever, because there is a lot of research out there that shows a mentor in a child’s life can actually help reduce depression symptoms in that youth.”
The NorthStar Foundation sees this effect up-close every day. The group works with young males, predominantly of-color, living in single-parent households where median family income is less than $30,000 annually.
Connecting the Dots
The organization’s most successful volunteer tutor mentors are those who can connect the dots between academics, today’s challenges and future success.
“We’re talking about somebody who engages,” said Scott Hazelrigg, executive director. “As you can imagine, there’s really two pieces to the puzzle. We’re always focused on the academic success of our students. However, coming out of the remote learning of the last 18 to 20 months, we know the social-emotional needs of our students may wildly outweigh where their heads are academically.
“So, first and foremost, we seek adults who are able and interested to listen to a young person, building a relationship, and then change the focus from, ‘Tell me about your day, tell me about what interests you,’ to ‘This is a subject that may not really interest you, but it’s really important.’”
“A mentor serves a lot of roles,” said Melissa Mayo, executive director of MENTOR Nebraska. “It can be someone providing coaching, support and/or advice. But more than anything, I think it’s someone who cares about what’s best for that young person.
“Every young person deserves to have someone in their corner, someone who can serve as a support, who will be there for them and really pour into them in terms of their time, in terms of a listening ear, be a cheerleader, all of those things.”
In some cases, organizations are not just rebuilding their numbers, but doubling down on mentorships by expanding programs. Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Midlands, for instance, recently branched out from its well-known community-based mentoring — currently serving about 800 children and youth — to introduce Mentor You, focusing on high schoolers.
“Mentor You is one-to-one mentoring just like our traditional community-based program, but the time commitment for that program is a bit less,” said Nichole Turgeon, CEO. “The mentor and mentee communicate through an online platform once a week. It’s very flexible. Through this messaging platform, we tie back to classroom lessons and things the students are working on. It’s a pretty minimal weekly time commitment.”
Turgeon said innovating through the use of technology not only helps the group connect more young people and volunteers, but also addresses the oft-stated objections many prospective mentors have.
“What we hear most is people are worried about the time commitment,” Turgeon said. “But when you dig a little bit deeper, I think what is underneath is really being concerned about disappointing a child or feeling like they aren’t good enough to be a mentor. We really try to share with people that these youth are looking for a person who will be there with them and be this caring friend. You don’t have to be perfect. Just consistently showing up is so important.”