Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

New Uber program removes one barrier to mentoring: transportation

Massachusetts program allows Big Brothers and Big Sisters who don't have their own cars to use the ride-hailing program for free to meet with their matches on weekends.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay
A mentor and mentee from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay hang out in Boston. BBBSMB is a mentoring organization that pairs around 2,400 of the city's young people with an adult mentor. The organization recently renewed a partnership with Uber that allows mentors to reach kids in areas without easily accessible transportation who would otherwise go without a "Big."

As C.T. Ransdell perused the profiles of potential “Little” brothers, he settled on a 7-year-old boy whom he felt sure he would click with. Then he realized it would take him two buses and a train to reach him.

Mr. Ransdell recalls how easy it was to get to meetups with his previous Little when they both lived around the corner from each other in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. But getting from his new place in Back Bay to a mentee in Dorchester would take about an hour both ways.

Enter a first of its kind partnership with Uber, which allows Big Brother mentors like Ransdell to use the car service to pick up their protégé, take them on an outing, and get back home – for free – on weekends. The pilot program made it possible for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay to match 50 of the 600 children – including Ransdell's Little – on its waiting list, the nonprofit organization says. That cut his travel time in half, Ransdell says, and made it practical for him to say yes to mentoring again.

It’s an innovative model that could help overcome one of the barriers to reaching the nearly 1 in 3 students across the country who say they need a mentor but don’t have one – urban neighborhoods lacking handy public transportation, mentoring experts say. While the benefits of mentoring have been well-documented, the barriers to pairing a child in need with a caring adult sometimes are less well understood, experts say.

“When a human being is doing the mental inventory of all the reasons why they can’t mentor: ‘I don’t have time, I don’t have a car, that’s too far,’ ... we’re trying to knock down all those barriers, and geography and transportation are definitely one of them,” says David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, an organization that champions mentoring nationwide. “I would say it’s a broader idea that’s scalable, I would say that pretty unequivocally.”

However, Mr. Shapiro adds a caveat. He knows the “scalability” is possible on the mentoring side of the equation, but a big question mark still hangs over whether it would work with Uber’s business model.

“We were excited to launch the pilot and see mentors use the program to help connect their mentees to new experiences around the city,” an Uber spokeswoman said via email, but said the company was not yet ready to discuss longer-term plans.

BBBS of Massachussets Bay and Uber began with a six-month pilot partnership in May, which connected 50 kids on the waiting list with college-student and young-professional mentors. Now, the two are finalizing a two-year partnership that should see them expand their reach to at least another 50 children. Uber Miami also recently started a similar program with the city’s BBBS branch, to help it whittle down its 1,000-strong waiting list.

“Our mentors are always surprised when they start working with these kids and they realize there’s so much they’ve never experienced outside their own neighborhoods,” says Rich Greif, BBBS of Mass Bay’s vice president of marketing and communications.

As gentrification in major urban centers continues to push more low-income families farther out into underserved – and sometimes unsafe – communities, Greif says, a lack of transportation means many kids have never done things like go to a baseball game, the beach, or Boston Common.

Contrary to some preconceptions that kids on mentor waiting lists have irresponsible or uncaring parents, it’s because they care that many parents request a mentor, he says.

“It’s often not just about what’s happening in that family, it’s really about parents wanting their children to make connections to caring adults in the community,” he says. “Sometimes they're concerned about things like bullying in school, … sometimes that parent just has to work a lot and doesn’t get to spend a lot of one-on-one time.”

For Ransdell, weekend outings give him a chance not only to connect but also dig deeper with his mentee about how he’s doing in school. On a recent trip to a crafts fair in Somerville, where vintage Hot Wheels were being sold, Ransdell said they could buy them, but only after he talked about a challenge he’d had in school that week.

“That’s when he’ll confide that at first the start of school was easy, but then these math problems came up and they were really difficult for me,” says Ransdell, who’ll then relay the message to his Little’s parents.

Ransdell says he has convinced a couple of his friends to become mentors, but that it’s much harder to get them to match with kids in neighborhoods like Dorchester, Hyde Park, Mattapan, or Roxbury, where a majority of kids on the waiting list reside.

Greif says BBBS has used the partnership with Uber as a recruiting tool for new mentors, particularly college students without a car.

“It’s been a real game-changer.”

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