Mentoring Matters

With extensive media coverage of protesters around the country responding to recent tragedies by amplifying the evocative refrain "Black Lives Matter," it's easy to forget that these events are also representative of a silent crisis that often goes unreported and unrecognized.

Many young people, particularly those living in poverty, believe that "the system" no longer works for them and that their lives simply don't count for much. The social fabric -- that robust network of community members, relatives, neighbors, faith-based connections and family friends -- that was once a guaranteed support for a young person is now stretched to its limits and no longer a given.

Lacking any sense of belonging or connection, these young people too often find themselves feeling isolated from the opportunities that are representative of our country's most essential promise.

Solving that sense of disconnection is complex -- so much so that it may seem overwhelming. But there is one very practical way in which anyone play a role: Mentoring is one way to create meaningful connections with the next generation, proving to them one by one that they truly do matter. And when we integrate mentoring into our schools and community organizations, the results can be transformative.

Jamal's story offers a powerful example. As a high school student in North Carolina, Jamal didn't believe that his life mattered to anyone - including himself. Distrustful of authority and law enforcement, he was in and out of jail three times by the age of 16. Jamal says he didn't care whether he lived or died until he met Reggie, the Communities In Schools site coordinator who became his mentor.

Reggie regularly tutored Jamal in his jail cell, bringing him books and homework assignments to make sure he didn't fall behind.

"I should not be standing here today," Jamal recently told us. "I should be dead or in prison somewhere." Instead, he's enrolled in college and weighing law school as an option. His success is one of the reasons why mentoring is an integral part of the supports that at-risk students receive at Communities In Schools.

January is National Mentoring Month and offers a timely reminder that if young people have meaningful relationships with adults they are able to see the future full of possibility.

We know, both experientially and empirically, that young people with a mentor in their lives are much more likely to grow into responsible, productive adults. Last year, a national study by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership found that at-risk youth are 78 percent more likely to volunteer in their communities and 81 percent more likely to participate in sports or extracurricular activities when they have a mentoring relationship.

As was noted in this report, called The Mentoring Effect, those are the connections that give marginalized young people a stake in their community, helping to promote healthy development while resisting negative influences. In fact, mentoring ranks fifth on a list of 31 strategies for its rate of success in preventing criminal violent behavior.

As we see every day at Communities In Schools, mentoring helps in the classroom as well. According to The Mentoring Effect our study, young people with a mentor in their lives are 55 percent more likely to go to college, a crucial step in breaking the cycle of poverty. Earlier research also shows that mentoring has a significant positive effect on reduced absenteeism and recurring behavior problems, two early warning signs for not completing high school.

Given such positive educational outcomes, it's no surprise that mentoring is often the preferred tool of dropout prevention programs nationwide. At Communities In Schools, for instance, we provide or coordinate mentoring services in 721 communities across 18 states and the District of Columbia, helping to achieve a 96 percent graduation rate among our at-risk student population.
Jamal's story shows the difference that a mentor can make. Unfortunately, the flip side is also true. As one young man told researchers for The Mentoring Effect: "If I had gotten an adult mentor from sixth grade to sophomore year, I would have a different life by now for sure. I ended up with more mistakes, which have had their lasting consequences and left me with regrets."

There is one more thing we learned through The Mentoring Effect: One-third of young people in the U.S. will reach the age of 19 without having a mentor of any kind. Having seen over and over again the life-changing difference that a mentor can make, we find that statistic both tragic and inexplicable.

The flashpoint stories that play out on the nightly news may seem far removed from our sphere of influence, but surely every one of us can resolve to be a consistent, positive influence in the life of one young person. And we can work to ensure our institutions including schools, faith-based organizations, law enforcement and community groups work to determine which young people need mentors and connect them with this powerful asset. Mentoring is a way to stitch two lives together - and just maybe, with enough stitches, we can restore that social fabric that seems stretched so thin.