Behind every success story stands a person or persons who lent guidance and support to the main character. And when it comes to young people, few things have as enduring an impact as a mentor.
“I think if anything, we’ve learned that relationships really are the fabric of what makes our community great,” said Melissa Mayo, executive director of MENTOR Nebraska. “Mentoring is a part of that and through the pandemic we learned that we all need each other. If that’s not a call to action to become a mentor, I don’t know what is.”
Responding to Change
For more than 20 years, MENTOR Nebraska – an affiliate chapter of MENTOR, The National Mentoring Partnership, based in Boston – has assisted in the mentor ecosystem statewide by providing training, no-cost consulting, recruitment and advocacy. The organization supports and collaborates with more than 200 programs, serving more than 14,000 youth.
And yet for all of that, the organization finds itself in uncharted waters as groups struggle to reignite mentoring programs decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The number of mentors, even year-over-year over the past two years, has decreased and a lot has to do with how we’ve responded to the pandemic,” Mayo said. “Programs had to, for all intents and purposes, stop recruitment because they were responding to community mandates and health mandates.
“Now that we are on the other side of understanding how we adapt and shift when there are changes and whether we can be in person or social distance and things like that, things are picking up again.”
There’s a good and simple reason why organizations are not throwing in the towel on reviving their mentor programs – such efforts pay off with youth who are far more likely to engage in positive activities and steer clear of trouble.
According to MENTOR Nebraska statistics, children and youth who have a mentor are 52% less likely to skip school, 55% more likely to attend college, 81% more likely to participate regularly in sports and other extra curriculars and 130% more likely to hold leadership positions within these activities.
Yet despite these numbers, many youths are still left without the positive interaction that lies at the heart of the mentoring relationship.
“Everyone, especially every young person, deserves to have someone in their corner who’s outside of their family,” Mayo said. “But we know that not every young person grows up with a mentor in their life. In fact, nationally, about one in three young people are growing up without an adult mentor outside of their immediate family.”
MENTOR Nebraska Helping with Recruiting
Founded by Michael Yanney and Dr. Tom Osborne in 1999 as Midlands Mentoring Partnership, MENTOR Nebraska takes an active role in helping organizations recruit more volunteers in ways that go beyond mere sloganeering. And it provides training and guidance to ensure those volunteers are equipped to interact with a mentee with the proper mindset.
“I think it’s important for organizations and volunteers to think about how to normalize mentoring so it’s not looked at as something that is ‘fixing’ something,” she said.
“Somehow, when we think about young people and mentoring, it’s always looked at as fulfilling a need or a deficit.
“It’s not necessarily what that young person is lacking, whether it is a parent, income or other factors like that. It’s about creating equitable access. Some young people have these support networks that are just embedded in their families and their communities, while others don’t. Our challenge is to reimagine what mentoring is about and who it’s for.”
Organizations that can shift this mindset are also better positioned to overcome objections that prospective volunteers have to getting involved. Mayo said while time commitment is generally the most-common reason people give not to volunteer, the real reasons often run deeper to issues of mentors not seeing what they have to offer a young person.
“We have to demystify all that you have to have accomplished to be a successful mentor,” she said. “Really, this is a relationship-focused activity where we take the approach of being a developmental mentor. What that means is the relationship is at the core, as opposed to being prescriptive about ‘I’m going to help you improve your grades,’ or ‘I’m going to help you get a job.’
“It’s really important for mentors to learn the things their mentee may be unfamiliar with because of the way they grew up or where they grew up. It’s much more important for mentors to just really show up for a young person through the good, bad and ugly. Most of the time things are great, but life is life. Even as adults we don’t all have good days; we have hiccups and struggles and so do kids. We stress the mindset that you’re not there to fix anything, you’re there to help navigate.”