Mentor At-Risk Youth

by Jamie Littlefield
The Challenge

Mentoring makes a big difference: When kids enjoy a regular, positive activity with an adult over the course of a year, those kids are more likely to enroll in and graduate from college, more likely to participate in sports, and more likely to volunteer in the community. They are also 52 percent less likely than their peers to skip school, 46 percent less likely to start using drugs, and 27 percent less likely to begin drinking alcohol. All this results in less drug-related suspensions, drug-related crime, and the number of babies born who are drug-affected. 

Youth mentors are desperately needed to provide companionship and guidance to at-risk children. Family tragedy, divorce, and financial problems can leave a child lonely and longing for adult support. These children need help with their school work, a listening ear, and unwavering encouragement. Unfortunately, school teachers in crowded classrooms have little time to give individual attention. School counselors are busy too, and most high school students receive less than three hours of career guidance during their four years of high school. There are sixteen million at-risk young people who need mentors; by volunteering as a youth mentor you can help one of them have a better life.

Children guided by a successful role model are more likely to improve their academic performance, through better decision-making skills, self-confidence, and sense of belonging. Youth in mentoring programs tend to have better relationships with parents, teachers, and peers. They are also more likely to attend and graduate from college.

Youth mentors help children set goals, solve problems, and make good choices. A mentor never takes the place of a parent — a mentor simply provides a positive role model for the at-risk child. Simple activities such as reading together, playing games, shooting some hoops, going to museums, and doing homework can mean the world to a young person eager for guidance.

You can make a difference by becoming a youth mentor for a child in your community or for a child in an online mentoring program. You'll be surprised at how much fun you can have.

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There are many ways to fit youth mentoring into your schedule. You may mentor informally when you have time, set a weekly appointment, or even mentor through the internet.

Local Youth Mentoring Opportunities

Mentoring at-risk youth in your neighborhood is an easy way to make an immediate difference. You may choose to be an informal mentor to a child in your extended family, church, or community. Getting involved can be as simple as tutoring, coaching a sports team, advising a hobby club, driving neighborhood kids to team practices, or assisting a teacher at a local school. You may read with students, chaperone events, or assist with school-based activities.

If you prefer more guidance and structure, a great directory of opportunities (including Big Brothers and Big Sisters) is provided by the The National Mentoring Partnership. Simply type in your zip code to find mentoring organizations near you.

Online Youth Mentoring Opportunities

If you need more flexibility, consider mentoring online. Many online mentoring programs require a minimal amount of time each week and allow volunteer youth mentors to set their own schedules. In order to become an online mentor, you will need to submit references and have a background check.

Consider these online youth mentoring programs:

  • Icouldbe.org provides an online mentoring program focused on helping at-risk teens make good career choices. Year-long mentors help their mentees to complete a set curriculum of activities by dedicating at least one hour a week during the school year. Spontaneous mentors hold discussions through secure email and message boards but do not need to help mentees work towards completing the curriculum.
  • MentorNet.net connects mentors with young college students interested in math, science, technology, or engineering. Many of the mentees are women or people from groups typically underrepresented in technical fields. Mentors give their mentors career guidance during an 8-month e-mail relationship. The program requires about 20 minutes each week.

Support for Youth Mentors

Even mentors need help now and then. These resources can help you become a confident first-time youth mentor:

  • Mentoring.org offers free help with its publications and toolkits called the Elements of Effective Practice Toolkit, which offers materials and information for beginners to the most seasoned mentors, as well as Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring, 3rd ed., and the Checklist for Mentoring Programs
  • The State of Michigan provides several mentoring tip sheets in pdf format including What If? (answers to common mentoring questions) and 20+ Ways to Be a Great Mentor.

Mentoring can take you out of your comfort zone. Be prepared to spend afternoons doing activities that seem insignificant: flying kites, playing games, talking about life, and wiping away tears. But, when it's all over, your seemingly small gestures will have made a huge difference in the life of a young person.

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