Its national mentoring month and I'd like to use the occasion to thank our very unexpected celebrity mentor, '60s pop icon Lesley Gore, who has used her talents to mentor in the truest sense -- to fulfill the mentoring mission to help and enhance what already exists.
Health People is a community program in the South Bronx , an area with the worst health, including the highest overall HIV/AIDS rate in New York, which also means it has many, many desperately ill parents. In Kids-Helping-Kids, our own mentoring program at Health People, we train older teens who face the difficult situation of having ill or deceased parents to be mentors for younger kids who face similar challenges.
These South Bronx teens who help other kids no matter how hard life is for them have received very little attention or encouragement from the outside world, until, by a happy accident, Lesley Gore, known for 'It's My Party," "You Don't Own Me" and other classic pop hits, became their music "mentor."
When our kids wrote a wonderful rap song, "Pull Your Pants Up," although I barely knew her, I emailed and asked if she could help them rehearse. She did that, realized they wanted to make a "real" video to put on YouTube, got them a recording studio and a video director and has in every way helped them see an engaging project to fruition. It would be hard to exaggerate how thrilling and fulfilling this has been for South Bronx kids who daily confront the challenges of dealing with poverty, losing parents to illness and addiction and being in foster care.
This South Bronx story is what I would call a triumph of mentoring -- older kids who lead difficult lives mentoring younger kids with difficult lives, overall being mentored in their talents and hopes by an iconic singer. You can see the wonderful result below in the Kids-Helping-Kids video of "Pull Your Pants Up"on YouTube.
But, equally important, this story shows how celebrities can effectively use their substantial powers to promote and help good causes by thinking of themselves not just as supporters, or "spokespeople," but as real mentors. It is sad, over and over, to read about celebrities with good intentions who wasted both their money and their intentions by starting their own foundations without having the time or experience to run them properly. There really is no time for that kind of waste in this hard-pressed world and celebrities can see their intentions much better filled simply by looking for an organization to mentor. Whatever a celebrity -- or anyone else -- thinks needs doing, some very deserving organization is already struggling mightily to do it. Go find that organization (something easily done today online), meet with them and figure out how the advantages of celebrity can mentor a mutual cause.
The Elton John AIDS Foundation, for example, is one of the few very successful celebrity foundations. But, as great as Elton John is at fundraising, his foundation does not even try to run its own programs and projects. The money raised goes to existing organizations, primarily in the United States, the Caribbean and South America, working on issues, from AIDS to prison and re-entry issues, that the foundation is trying to advance. The foundation, too, makes an unusual effort to find grassroots community organizations that are helping especially neglected populations.
Celebrities who want to help in the same fashion of being a successful "money mentor" don't have to undertake the same extraordinary, ambitious and time-consuming effort that Elton John has. After all, the core mission of a mentor is to help develop potential. With the Internet, you can find dozens of small organizations undertaking good works, particularly programs that already exist in neighborhoods and places that don't ordinarily garner donations and attention. Being a celebrity mentor to programs like these, where modest amounts of money make an enormous difference, would be highly productive and satisfying. Smaller organizations in low-income neighborhoods are especially important to providing kids in desperate need with attention, support and positive activities.
Finally, after looking at how to mentor what already exists, a celebrity mentor, like any other mentor, knows that this is a long-term mission. It takes time for organizations and causes to grow just as it does for children to grow. Emmy-nominated actress Kellie Martin, for one example, has now spent 15 years mentoring the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association which, for her, became a passionate cause when her sister, Heather, unexpectedly died from an undiagnosed case of lupus at the young age of 19. Kellie has been an all around mentor -- helping raise money, and awareness of the major impact of autoimmune diseases, as well as meeting with policymakers and promoting research -- who is simply there, year after year.
Similarly, whether raising money, public awareness or helping kids raise their voice in song, celebrities who act by the first principle of mentoring -- to nurture what already exists -- will find their efforts go the farthest and surest.