Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Mentoring 101: What the kids want matters

Part 5 of the Monitor's One Caring Person project on the power of mentoring to transform young people's lives.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jamil Lott chats with teens he is mentoring as part of the New Lens Urban Mentoring Society, on Aug. 6, 2016, in St. Paul, Minn. Lott grew up without a father, but said coaches and a grandfather stepped in to help him. Now, he says, 'I'd like to believe these youth are getting what I was craving when I was young.'

Shopping for clothes can be tough for Rayne, who identifies as neither female or male, but as nonbinary.

Rayne’s mentor, Katherin Hudkins, has been a “rock,” in cases like that.

“I was going to go into a dressing room and we were at a Target, and one of the workers gave me this look, and instantly she was right there, super supportive,” says Rayne, who prefers to use the pronoun “they” rather than “he” or “she.”

Rayne spent more than a decade in the foster-care system. Three years ago, Silver Lining Mentoring paired Rayne with Ms. Hudkins, a 20-something from the Boston area.

Talking with or seeing Katherin is “basically the single thing that I look forward to every week. It’s pretty much everything,” says Rayne. “I have pictures on my wall of our meetings and our camping trips we did together…. It’s nice to have someone who’s been there constantly.”

Hudkins identifies as queer – an umbrella term that can embrace a variety of gender identities. 

“I was lucky to be in an incredibly supportive, loving environment when I was beginning to explore that identity as a teenager,” she says. “[To not] have a safe stable place to do that is scary and sometimes even dangerous.”

Through training at Silver Lining, she had been prepared for what could have been a slow road to trust for her and Rayne. But “really early on, it was pretty easy to get to know one another,” she says. “We both think each other is really, really cool.”

That sense of having someone in your corner can be valuable to all young people. But research has shown that, when done effectively, mentoring particularly benefits vulnerable children – lowering chronic absenteeism, helping teens get off probation, and improving graduation rates. Yet even with the growth of mentoring groups over the past two decades, an estimated 9 million at-risk children in the United States will turn 19 without that connection, reports MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, a nonprofit that works to improve the quality of mentoring. 

“A lot of times people are afraid to explore.… I tell people, just call some programs, do some shopping,” says David Shapiro, MENTOR’s president and CEO. Mr. Shapiro is the guest speaker at “Mentoring, Making a Difference,” a Monitor-hosted event in Boston Oct. 20. (For a database of mentoring opportunities in your area, click here.)

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Efforts to improve the quality of mentoring have been ramping up in recent years, but advocates are still working to make sure the kids who need them most find good mentors – and that those who take on these relationships are given the training and support needed to understand what the role demands and how to make it last.

“It’s so much more complex than just finding an adult who cares,” says Jennifer Lindwall, a research assistant at Portland, Ore., State University who once oversaw the quality of mentoring for the state of Minnesota. Sometimes people “think it doesn’t matter what training [mentors] have,… that kids should just be thankful to have an adult in their life.”

She ticks off problems that can occur, especially when mentors exhibit biases they may not even be aware they have: Mentors who disparage kids’ families or communities, or won’t pick them up because of where they live, or appear to be trying to make the kids more like themselves. (In one case, she says, a mentor said they wanted to take a student to the country club to learn to talk “properly.”)

That’s not to say cross-cultural matches are necessarily bad. “If students have a pretty strong sense of self … if they have multiple role models, at least one or two of whom match up with their race or some sort of culturally significant thing for them, then a mentor who comes from a really different background … provides a diversity of caring adults … to help them develop and grow,” she says. 

Foster kids often bounce around between homes and caseworkers, with no adults in their lives except those who are paid to be there.

Silver Lining Mentoring carefully matches foster children ages 7 and up with volunteer mentors. It also provides in-depth training and coordinators who assist the pairs.

The average relationship lasts almost five years. But for some, there really is no endpoint.

Recently, a young man stopped by the office who has been with his mentor for 15 years. “There’s nobody who remembers that awkward haircut he got in 7th grade except his mentor and our team,” says CEO Colby Swettberg. “No one had pictures of him from his prom. It was his mentor who had all this stuff, who was the relationship historian, who could remember and talk with him about how he’s changed.” 

'It helps me feel better about myself'

Jamil Lott grew up in St. Paul, Minn., without the consistent presence of a father. Coaches, uncles, and a grandfather stepped in at pivotal moments, he says, helping him achieve his dream of playing college basketball. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Marquette University in 2007.

So when he was approached three years ago to be a role model through New Lens Urban Mentoring Society, “it was a no-brainer,” he says.

​Educator Gayle Smaller had ​launched the society in 2013 ​in St. Paul to connect African-American men ​with seventh- and eighth-grade boys and support them through high school.

But like many mentoring organizations around the country, it struggles at times to attract enough men. It strives for a ratio of one mentor for every three students, but staff members mentor up to five youths when there aren’t enough volunteers.

The program relies on black male mentors because of what can happen when underserved black boys grow up with only female role models. “When you bring a white male who is married, who is college-educated, who shows up on time, who takes them to do things that are outside of their community that they haven’t had exposure to … either they completely internalize the sense of  … ‘we aren’t good enough for this’ and they go into a depression, or they take on the idea of full assimilation, where [they] try to be as white as possible,” Mr. Smaller says.

New Lens currently serves 135 young people. On any given Saturday, about 80 of them show up for activities ranging from canoeing and fencing to college visits. 

Older mentors also join to nurture the younger mentors and share their wisdom about everything from founding a business to married life. 

“We come together as a big crew, the kids and the adults … and it’s all positive, and it just counters all these … narratives that you’re told,” Lott says. “It makes me feel better about myself. I’d like to believe these youth are getting what I was craving when I was a youth.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jamil Lott (l.) participates in a boxing lesson with teens he is mentoring as part of the New Lens Urban Mentoring Society, on Aug. 6, 2016, in St. Paul, Minn. The group does many different activities – from camping to sports. Their goal is to improve the quality of life for black males by providing culturally-congruent, multigenerational mentoring to address mental, physical, and social development.

After two matches that fizzled out, Lott now mentors three teenagers – two through formal matches and one he bonded with during group activities.

Lott guesses at one reason it’s hard to attract more men to mentor: “You have to work through your own insecurities, which is hard for a lot of adult men…. You have to be strong within yourself to know that … if this kid doesn’t like me or says something rude to me, it’s not the end of the world.”

He recently earned a master’s degree in social work, while working full time at a school. With time so tight, he’d get frustrated if he made plans and a student wasn’t home to be picked up as arranged.

“There’s been many, many times that I’ve wanted to give up,” he says. “But when things get so hard and you work through that, that’s when you really see those results.” 

Ten years and counting

For decades, Elise Schiller worked with nonprofit groups to support inner-city students in Philadelphia. About nine years ago, a man doing some moving and hauling work for her office got curious about their early-childhood program. He was a single African-American dad to Jamie, a 2-1/2 year old girl who was having trouble speaking, so he asked for advice.

Ms. Schiller discovered that the babysitter was sometimes keeping the child in a playpen and was not speaking much to her. She helped the dad get Jamie a scholarship for her organization’s daycare program, where the girl made up ground quickly.

 When her dad ran late to pick Jamie up, Schiller would read to her. Schiller started offering to take her to zoos and museums with her grandchildren. 

When Jamie was in second grade, her dad raised concerns about violence at her school. Schiller helped him shop around and apply for a partial scholarship to a Quaker school.

Now 12, Jamie has traveled with Schiller’s family and attended summer camps at her expense. 

Schiller is white, but her neighborhood and social circles are largely black. Her ancestors ran schools for free blacks after the Civil War. 

“We talk about [race] all the time,” she says of her relationship with Jamie, who also has contact with her Guyanese mother in Philadelphia. “She’s old enough to learn the racial history of the United States, and so with that comes interest in her own racial identity and what it means.”

'This relationship is going to stay'

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) teens make up a significant portion of the foster care population, so all Silver Lining mentors learn about LGBTQ issues during cultural competency training. The group also recruits LGBTQ mentors for kids who request such a match.

Rayne has had five moves since being matched with Hudkins, and now lives more than an hour outside Boston, working in a factory and planning to go back to school to become a sign language interpreter. Hudkins still visits, and the two continue to attend the annual Silver Lining camping trip together.

Rayne knows “that no matter where they go, this relationship is going to stay,” Hudkins says.

The support of the Silver Lining coordinator who knows them both has been helpful for Hudkins.

“It can be very hard in [tough] moments to step back from the urge to fix … and instead to be in this place of being empathic and supportive,” she says. “But it does a lot to just say, ‘Wow, that sounds really, really hard,’ and to be there to listen.”

Hudkins carries Silver Lining cards with her to spread the word.

“Giving of yourself to someone who can become this really important person in your life is rewarding in so many ways,” she says. “You don’t want to be just one more person who flits into someone’s life.

“But if you do have the time to commit, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.” 

Part 1: Want kids to show up to school? Embed a mentor.

Part 2: College supply list for low-income students: Books, financial aid ... a mentor

Part 3: From juvenile detention to straight A's, with the help of a mentor

Part 4. The South African astronomer who built a pipeline to the stars

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