Mentoring: An individual focus; a better community

Saturday, April 21, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 2:12 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 23, 2012
According to national statistics, after 18 months in the program, the youth who participated in the Big Brother Big Sister Program were less likely to start using drugs and alcohol. They also performed better academically and in peer and family relationships.

Editor's note: This is part of a special section on Columbia's kids. Read more here.

COLUMBIA — The role of a mentor in the life of a child can vary from a trusted confidant, an exemplary role model or a welcomed friend. Whatever the approach, it's the mission of each mentor to play an influential part in the life of a child.


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"A lot of kids just need another positive influence in their life," said Joe Bradley, enrollment and matching specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri. "Sometimes a child just needs one more adult, one more college student, one more friend asking about their life. It can make all the difference."

Big Brothers Big Sisters views youth mentorship as crucial in encouraging the success of a child, said Sara Echternach, coordinator of community-based mentoring for the organization's Central Missouri chapter.

"We really do feel that one-on-one mentoring is what works," Echternach said. "It's individualized attention. The mentor is there to point the child towards good decisions." 

According to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri's website, national research has proven that positive youth mentoring can advance the success of a child by contributing to:

  • More confidence in their schoolwork.
  • An ability to get along better with family and friends.
  • Being 46 percent less likely to engage in the use of illegal drugs.
  • Being 27 percent less likely to begin using alcoholic substances.
  • Being 52 percent less likely to skip school.

"The success to mentorship is all about modeling," said Tina DeClue, coordinator of school-based mentoring at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri. "Through mentorship and seeing a positive role model, the youth take ownership, become more responsible, look forward to time with their mentor and, ultimately, start to believe in something."

According to the organization's mission statement, mentoring provides positive relationships that enhance a child's development into positive, healthy and able community members.

"One hour a week can completely change the life of a child," DeClue said. "Your community is going to naturally, as a whole, become better, more effective and a better place." 

What makes mentorship effective?

Marcia Kearns, a doctoral student in clinical and developmental psychology at MU researching interventions for youth, family relationships and development of autonomy in youth, said mentoring programs that have been demonstrated through research to be effective in helping youth achieve a desired outcome have the greatest probability of being successful.

Mentoring can contribute to improvement in social, psychological, academic and career-focused areas, Kearns said. 

"I have seen research say the kind of mentorship programs that are most effective are those that carefully select the mentor, have clear expectations and provide oversight," Kearns said. "The successful programs select mentors that have similar interests to the youth they serve and don't just match them to characteristics such as racial ethnicity." 

Matching mentors with children helps ensure an effective relationship. Claire Slama, homeless youth program director at Rainbow House, said her agency's volunteer mentor program consists of application, background screening, interview and training. From there, youth and mentors are matched based on their life goals and interests. 

"Mentors in our program are there to kind of teach the youth what it's like to be an adult," Slama said. "Sometimes they will take them to a meal to model to the youth proper etiquette, sit down to create a budget of some sort or perhaps teach a skill such as making a resume."

Echternach said it's crucial to indicate a serious commitment to the volunteers interested in serving as a mentor. Along with the matching process, this commitment builds trust and, in turn, allows the relationship to blossom. 

"We have stated consistent guidelines for our mentors to follow. The building of the relationship takes awhile," Echternach said. "Over a course of a year, the mentorship relationship will have more effectiveness."

Cindy Smith, a doctoral candidate in special education at MU with a research interest in mentoring as an intervention for high risk adolescents, said quality is the most important aspect. Most mentoring programs rely on volunteers, so it's essential to have support and training.

"Recent research has found almost 50 percent of mentoring relationships end before they are six months old. They are often ended by the mentor and not the adolescent," Smith said. "This is why it's so highly important to have a strong support program for the mentors."

Emotional connections are another key to a successful relationship, Kearns said, along with personalities.

"If they don't connect, it can undermine the success of the mentorship model whose whole foundation is based on them having a positive relationship," she said.

The impact of community attitude 

Youth Community Coalition of Columbia has served as a central point for the various mentorship agencies to discuss the issues of recruiting and maintaining mentors in the community, said Ryan Worley, coordinator of Youth Community Coalition or YC2. This initiative is called The Mentoring Collaborative. 

"Just recently this year, we started The Mentoring Collaborative," Worley said. "YC2 brings all of the agencies that focus on youth mentoring, various resources and experts together in order to find out what they can do collaboratively to make mentorship better for everyone in the community."

Worley said the mindset of YC2 is to see the community think about how it can help the successful development of youth.  

"Mentoring plays into the community attitude where young people grow up and are supported and cared for," Worley said. "It's about taking a personal interest to make sure the youth of the community succeed." 

Bradley, who is working with Big Brothers Big Sisters through AmeriCorps, said there are 700 to 800 children enrolled in the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Missouri program. 

"We're working to target the whole community," Bradley said. "Getting 800 kids in our community to have another positive influence in their life will positively affect the entire community." 

Mentorship is an important intervention for any community, Smith said.

"If you look at what mentorship can do, out of the lives of 10 youth, even if you have only one youth that does well, stays in school and stays off the streets, the possibility of the payback to that program and to the community is so huge."

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