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Be a Mentor, Help a Kid, Help Yourself

Mentoring can drastically improve life for children and teenagers, but the adults also benefit from these relationships.

There are 8.5 million youth in the U.S. who lack supportive, sustained relationships with caring adults, according to The Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs (IWGYP), which is made up of representatives from 21 federal agencies. Three million adults take part in formal mentoring programs, but more are desperately needed.

Youth with a successful mentoring relationship are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, demonstrate improved self-confidence and behavior, and are less likely to use drugs and alcohol.

Mentors also benefit from these relationships by showing increased self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment, and improved patience and supervisory skills, IWGYP says.

There are millions of adults who informally mentor youth. Examples include the retired farmer who helps a neighbor kid get livestock ready for the fair, the aunt who teaches her niece to sew, and the friend who helps fill the gap for busy single parents.

Whether formal or informal, duration is the key to a successful mentoring experience. The goal of mentoring is to provide a dependable role model that a child can grow to trust. If the child feels let down or abandoned, the purpose has been defeated.

Rural Programs Face Challenges

According to a report from the National Mentoring Partnership and the University of South Carolina, rural programs are no less successful than their urban counterparts. 

The report shows that rural mentoring programs are more likely to require year-long matches, and contact at least once a week is expected. A higher percentage of rural matches last their intended duration and are more likely to focus on things like life skills, healthy behavior, substance abuse, and the relationship itself.

Rural mentoring programs do face some challenges. Mentor recruitment, meaningful activities for mentors and mentees, and the struggle to deliver services in a rural setting make it difficult for programs to create matches.

Bringing Best Friends Together

More than 150 at-risk children in southwest North Dakota participate in the Best Friends Mentoring Program. Kris Fehr is the executive director, and Mark Billings is the program and communication coordinator.

“Mentoring has changed over the years. It used to be mostly single-parent families with a boy who needed bonding time with an adult male,” Fehr says. “Now many of the kids and families in our program have other things going on like abuse and addiction.” Best Friends trains its mentors to deal with these issues, provides resources to mentors and families, and works with the state and social workers when needed.

Only about 10 children in the Best Friends program are in foster care, but a much larger number are at risk. “Mentors provide stability, so if the child is taken away from parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends, the mentor is still there,” Fehr says. “Mentors can break the cycle by giving kids a loving, positive relationship with someone who doesn’t have to be there, but wants to be there because they care.”

One challenge rural mentors face is the perception that there is less to do than in urban areas. However, Fehr says, “Even if the families have lived here all their lives, the kids can be really isolated and maybe haven’t even been to the library or a local museum. Mentors can just take kids to the park, where they may never have been.”

Billings says finding mentors – especially men – in rural areas is challenging. “Many people are working and volunteering in other areas,” he says. He does work with a handful of ranchers who are mentors and says, “Once they committed to being mentors, they’ve had amazing experiences.”

One Best Friends mentor, who Fehr describes as a “grandmother-type,” became so close with her mentee that she drove 100 miles every week for nine months to visit her when she was placed in a group home. “The mentor thought this would just be doing crafts and going to movies, but this child turned out to really need her for the survival of her mental health,” Fehr says. “The mentor loved this little girl.”

Fehr stresses that a mentor doesn’t have to be perfect to make a difference in the life of a child. High school and college students can even mentor younger children. “You don’t have to be the captain of the basketball team or the head cheerleader,” she says. “We often go to frontline community leaders, but ordinary people can be excellent mentors.”

Find a Mentor, Be a Mentor

Visit IWGYP to become a mentor or to find a mentor for your child, and learn more about Best Friends

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