In this day and age, virtually every kid could use another friend. All of us must wake up a bit, attending to the tough circumstances in which too many kids are growing up. Being keenly alert to the essential importance of one-on-one relationships between adult mentors and kids and gaining understanding about the pivotal difference each of us can make.
The research is undeniable that the presence of even just one nonfamily adult can make a huge difference for a young person. It may be through contact organized by a church, nonprofit organization, or workplace, or it may be through an encounter during a crisis in a child’s life. But one adult can serve a child by offering love, encouragement, and advice.
A decade ago, my wife and I felt the calling to become mentors. We are empty-nesters who truly enjoy the company of younger people. Our home is kid-friendly, with plenty of books and board games, a porch suitable for entertaining and a backyard that features a trampoline. We frequent sport and theatre events with large groups of youth, using discounted or donated tickets.
We have a long, active list of addresses and phone numbers of our young friends. Setting time aside every week, we participate in organized mentoring programs and have established less-formal relationships with youngsters whose parents are welcoming.
As a couple, our shared goal is to donate about 1,000 hours a year of volunteer time and a significant amount of money to support the well-being of kids. For part of every year, we host live-in foreign exchange students, which keeps us connected with the school system.
Research has shown that a child’s positive and extended experience—preferably when they’re 10-14 years old and for at least a year or two—with a caring adult mentor can dramatically reduce the likelihood of illegal drug and alcohol use, school and classroom truancy, and physically violent interactions with family and friends.
Consequently, we strive to work with young people who come from demographic groups that are more likely to suffer depression, run away from home, drop out of school, become teenage parents, or enter the criminal justice system.
Adults interested in giving mentoring a try should be aware that immediate feed back is not always evident, as “thank you” does not appear to be a part of many young people’s vocabularies.
With the passage of time, though, things sometimes change, as the following anecdotal examples demonstrate.
- A “Father’s Day” call from a young Taiwanese woman who lived with us nearly a decade ago meant a lot.
- A boy from Crystal who has never seen his Egyptian father spoke eloquently to us about what our 16-year friendship meant to him.
- A Twin Cities teen we came to know through a faith-based program—she never knew her birth parents—made the cheerleading squad and asked for our help on college applications.
- A former guest “son” from Chile wanted to work and save for college while living once again at our home in the United States.
- Two inner-city siblings we’ve known for nearly a decade had amazing responses as they took their first ride in a passenger jet, flying to Atlanta with us for a weekend in honor of a first-in-the-family high school graduation.
- In a telephone call from Australia, a former Minnesotan and new mother we’ve known nearly all her life asked permission to name her newborn son after our deceased son.
- Calls, cards, e-mails, and holiday greetings arrive regularly from young people who apparently know that we care for them.
As mentors we are the better for it, no doubt.
Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting organization. He was named “Mentor of the Year” by mentoryouth.com for his work with Life Coaches.