Mentors pave way to better life

By Tami Silverman

Talk to most successful individuals and you’ll hear stories of how caring adults — mentors — played key roles in guiding them on their journeys. Research abounds about the benefits of high-quality mentoring relationships, whether informal or arranged.

Mentors expand children’s support networks, help them grow into well-rounded citizens and build important skills.

Matching a caring, trained adult mentor with a youth is a development, prevention and intervention strategy. When we ensure the healthy development of the next generation, they will pay that back through productive and responsible citizenship.

Yet too many kids, especially boys, who want and need mentors don’t have one. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana reports that 544 boys in Marion, Hamilton and Johnson counties are waiting for a mentor, making up 71 percent of its current wait list.

While the organization is always working to recruit volunteers, officials say they especially need male mentors, couples and mentors who can serve youth on the east and west sides of Marion County. January is National Mentoring Month — the perfect time for caring adults to step up to fill these critical roles.

Mentoring plays a big role in developing healthy students. David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership says mentoring provides protective and supportive relationships throughout a child’s upbringing.

Mentoring’s key educational benefits include increased graduation rates, lower dropout rates, better attitudes about school, higher college enrollment rates and higher educational aspirations.

The benefits of mentoring extend beyond academics. Involvement in mentoring relationships helps kids avoid experiencing depressive symptoms, engaging in violent behaviors and using illegal substances.

A Big Brothers Big Sisters study found youth who met regularly with their mentors were 46 percent less likely to start using illegal drugs, and 27 percent less likely to start drinking. Mentees in high-quality programs were also less likely to hit another youth and had lower delinquency rates.

A 2013 study, “The Role of Risk,” identified the greatest benefit of mentoring as a reduction in symptoms of depression, a critical finding, as almost one in four youth at the beginning of the study had reported worrisome levels of these symptoms.

While countless students reap mentoring benefits, the value can be amplified for kids facing the greatest hurdles.

“One of the challenges I see is that we have to help men understand the importance of pouring themselves into the life of a young person who’s coming up,” said Ontay Johnson, executive director of 100 Black Men of Indianapolis. “We get men to remember that you didn’t make it to where you are by yourself.”

Research funded by the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey found that mentoring initiatives helped boys create and develop healthy identities, build their self-belief, and facilitated the skill development and social connections needed to succeed.

However, some well-intentioned, yet poorly structured, mentoring programs can have a negative impact. MENTOR outlines elements of strong mentoring programs. Programs must set clear expectations for mentors and the mentees. Mentors should commit to at least one year of weekly face-to-face meetings.

Screenings should include an in-person interview, reference and background check. A mentor should complete at least two hours of training prior to being matched with a mentee to increase the likelihood of creating positive matches. Ongoing training and support is also essential.

Caring, empathetic and dedicated adults who serve as mentors can be vital guides to help kids successfully transition into adulthood. Yet one in three kids is still waiting for a mentor.

To find quality mentoring programs near you, visit www.iyi.org and click on the Indiana Mentoring Partnership link. By stepping up and signing up, you’ll not only improve the life of a child, you’ll enrich your own life and community, while honoring those who helped you succeed.

Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.