What does it take for mentoring “at risk” kids to “work”?

So I have “mentored” three young men for the past twelve years. They rank in the top five joys and blessings of my life. I love them so much and think they are just so amazing beyond words. That said, it has been hard. Very very hard. For them. For me. These are my thoughts on that process and on the “afterschool tutoring”/”mentoring disadvantaged kids” trend that is quite popular these days. This is a tad long, but I think worth it, as it is one of the areas I am most passionate about and actually know a little about.

First a note on terminology: I put “at risk” and “work” in quotes because I’m not sure if either of those are the greatest terms to describe what I am talking about, but I can’t think of others that work better. I think we label inner-city and/or minority kids “at risk” and it turns them into Those At Risk Kids rather than just people trying to make their way in the world. That said, kids whose families are poor, kids who grow up in the inner-city, and/or kids who are part of a minority ethnicity/race, face a whole host of factors that stack the cards against them, and it is important to acknowledge that they are up against a lot that has really nothing to do with who they are and everything to do with the way our society is structured. I say “what does it take to make mentoring “work”?” because the whole idea of what is a “success” that has really “worked” makes it seem like mentoring is meant to churn our “good” members of society. This is a problem. I wanted the boys I mentored to be happy, safe, and feel loved, like most people want for people/children who they care about. Part of this is the hope that their criminal record would be non-existent or minor, that they wouldn’t have children earlier than they were ready, that they wouldn’t be involved in drug sales (one of the only lucrative jobs available to them with the sort of sucky inner-city education they got), that they could have a job that make them happy and feel secure, that they would find a partner they loved, etc. This is different than the grappling, desperate hope of preventing “those kids” from becoming criminals, which is the underlying message/goal of lots of inner-city mentoring/after school programs.

So, enough with terminology. I think you get the point.

The main thing I wanted to raise in this post is that afterschool tutoring programs and mentoring programs mostly serve the purpose of exposing privileged teenagers to social injustices. The best result of this is that they are more aware of these social injustices and aware that they are structural issues (and not because poor/minority folks are lazy or bad parents, etc.). This is actually important because I can’t think of any other way to get privileged people to understand their privilege, and to understand social injustice other than getting to know people different from them. Volunteer programs help with this and the good ones help volunteers reflect on this, and integrate it into their world view. The idea would be to produce volunteers who will be moved enough by their experiences to want to change the world.

What these programs usually don’t do is actually help the kids have any more stability in their lives, get better grades or be less “at risk.” I know that there are exceptions, but by and large, these programs do not actually help the kids. The best programs realize this, and instead do the programs with the knowledge that it is mostly about volunteers learning from communities, with a sometimes side-benefit of actually supporting those communities in the struggle for the justice that they deserve.

The programs mostly don’t work because, first, the schools that poor and minority kids go to are so bad that a little tutoring here and there by high school students cannot even begin to compensate for the inadequate education that kids from inner-city schools get. (How do I know this? The book Shame of the Nation by Jonathan Kozol deals with this extensively, and I did the research for the book so I’ve poured over these stats and narrative accounts, and studies, um, a lot.)

Another reason they don’t work is because, there is a lot of talk about “loving the kids” and “building relationships” in these programs, but this doesn’t work if you volunteer for one semester, or even a year or two. As cute as the kids may be, “loving them” involves more than showing up once a week to tutor them. And they know it. Many kids from the inner-city have seen hundreds of people come and go, bearing gifts of bicycles, candy, fun games, parties, tutoring books (and often the message of Jesus). They are onto the game. They live it up. Play along. Hug you and smile, but they know that when it gets hard, the tutoring people aren’t around. Not when Dad goes to jail. Not when Mom looses her job, when the phone gets cut off, when the shots ring out.

Someone said something like this to me early in my conversion to Christianity when I was still trying hard to do everything everyone at my church told me to. They said, “Lots of people come and go in these kids lives. You need to be there for them.” So, when I got my first group of tutoring kids I decided, “Okay, these are my kids.” This is not to say, “Oh what a hero I am” but to say that mentoring can’t work unless it is for the long haul. Late night calls. Money transfers. Going out to Chucky Cheese even when you are so tired and just want to rest. Answering the hard questions and confused tears about why we are always stopped by the police – black kids with a white girl. Explaining to the people at ice cream store that we will not leave and you can’t just ban people from your store just because. Knowing when to be the tough big sister or when to just listen. Not having any idea what you are doing and needing to just keep going anyway. And explaining for the five millionth time why you cannot call each other gay even if you “don’t mean anything” by it.

Is mentoring some sort of answer? I would say absolutely not. It is great if you can do it. If you stick with it, love unconditionally, are willing to help financially, emotionally, even on those days when you are tired, and even when the mentorees make the ten thousandth bad decision (as most kids will do), it can “work.” It is the most rewarding thing in my life – the young men bring me more joy than I can put into words. I LOVE to laugh with them, and I am not a huge laugh-er. I think my presence and never-ending-even-when-it-seems-stupid belief in them has made a difference. But they still struggle SO MUCH because being poor in the United States is hard. Being black is hard. It’s like no matter how hard they try, there is often something else that just knocks them down. And there is only so much I can do, they can do, their moms can do. And my love and commitment to them hasn’t done much or even almost anything to change the system. And it has taken a whole lotta energy. I do it because I love them and they love me, but it is so so so frustrating to see that EVERY OTHER KID they know and I know from the tutoring program where I met them is not doing well. Pregnant very young. Shot. Jail. Abused. No decent educations. We sometimes go over the kids that we all knew, and we can’t come up with anyone doing well. It is depressing.

I don’t mean this to be some sort of authoritative article on mentoring or that I am some sort of guru. It is just that I don’t hear a lot of people sticking with the mentoring thing through elementary school all the way to college. It makes me upset to see mentoring programs that are all self-congratulatory and then don’t even have a long-term way to maintain contact with the kids. That is FINE if you don’t want to be in it for the long-haul, but if you want to make a difference, the long-haul is what it will take. I guess I am looking for more honesty about what these sorts of mentoring/tutoring programs can and can’t do for communities and their children. And honesty about what it really takes to make a dent in the numbing barrage of injustices that far too many children face every single day.

May we continue to do the hard work of love and justice wherever and however we can.

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30 Responses to What does it take for mentoring “at risk” kids to “work”?

  1. Hey Elizabeth,

    Thank you for sharing your experience being a mentor. I just read a book titled “Stand By Me: The Risks and Rewards of Mentoring Today’s Youth,” by Jean E. Rhodes, which is a brief analysis of current studies about why some mentoring relationships are more effective than others. The book supports your argument that effective mentor relationships are the ones where the mentor makes a long-term commitment. Rhodes goes even a step further, in arguing that some youth whose mentor relationships are cut short actually suffer more harm than if they were never mentored at all. Rhodes also echoes what you are saying about the fact that mentoring is HARD, and she suggests that rather than more mentors, we need better supported mentors, who receive more training and more check-ins from mentor program staff.

    I’ll bring the book when we get together for dinner in case you want to borrow it, but it sounds like you already know these lessons from your own experience.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks Shelby. I’d love to see the book. I’ll email soon. :) E

  3. Charlie Talbert says:

    A long-term relationship between a mentor and a student is probably better than a short-term one. I think, though, that a short-term one is better than none at all.

    I’ve been a mentor for ten years, participating in a program with the local school district where adult mentors meet weekly with the same student through the third, fourth, and fifth grades. (Maybe this is more “intermediate” than “short” term.)

    Several years ago this program was linked to Big Brothers / Big Sisters, so that the mentor and student could continue meeting after the fifth grade, but so far I haven’t taken that option, and I may not. All of us have only so much time to donate to good causes, and for now I think my time is best spent in these three-year rotations.

    I agree that these programs sometimes seem self-congratulatory, but in my experience and opinion, this is to “talk it up” so that more adults will volunteer. Our program needs more adults. There are so many rewards, but the saddest part is the longing looks in the eyes of the kids from troubled homes who don’t have mentors, who ask you in the school hallway if you’ll be their mentor, too.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Hi Charlie. Thanks for your comments. I totally hear you that your relationships with the kids you mentor is rewarding for both you and the children. And a three year commitment is a good one. Much better than one semester or here and there for a few months, with various kids, etc. My questions would be, what are the goals of the mentoring program? How is it framed? If it is about extra help with homework, someone to listen to the children, getting a new perspective about the world (both the students and the adult mentors), then it sounds like a great program, particularly if it isn’t famed in “help these poor disadvantaged kids” terms. But if the intention is to change outcomes down the road – higher graduation rates, lower crime rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, higher college attendance rates, etc. – then I would question what a three year elementary school commitment can do. It isn’t so much that I mean to imply that individual mentoring is wrong, but rather to critique both the way such programs are presented to kids, mentors, and the public, and to be honest about what the expected outcomes can be. All kids can probably benefit from interaction with a mentor – I certainly did throughout high school and into college. But my experiences is that most mentoring programs to “at risk” groups is presented as more than just a listening ear, and that there are implications that it will actually change kids lives in the long-run. With the exception of intense tutoring programs with well-trained tutors who might help compensate for the lack of basic skills kids get in underfunded inner-city schools, I think it is often not the case. Sorry to go on. Thanks for your comments, and for your work with kids who are lucky to have such a mentor :) All the best, Elizabeth

  5. Charlie Talbert says:

    The mentoring program I participate in has been operating for ten years. It’s organized by a partnership of the school system and a local business alliance. I’m not certain what is being collected to evaluate its success, other than evaluation forms completed by the students, teachers, and mentors. These are generally very positive.

    It could be improved, no doubt, although I would consider the program successful even if, compared to a control group, the enrolled children had no better rates of high school graduation, college entrance, income attainment, or other standard measures of success. Not all success is measurable.

    About 70% of the time with my student is spent on homework, and the remainder is used to just talk, play games or look at cool stuff – supernovas, lava, quicksand, insect-eating plants, army ants, card tricks, exotic cultures, huge or fast ships, planes, cars or other vehicles and anything else that boys generally are fascinated by. (I seem to have a good grasp of what’s interesting, like a sixth sense I call it, although my partner attributes it in thinly tactful words to delayed maturity.)

    My secondary goal is to impart knowledge and skills to these grade-schoolers, but my primary one is to let them know how much I respect and like them. I grew up in a broken home that probably appeared functional, although it was pretty much barren of emotional support, nurturing, or expressions of love.

    But my brother and I got plenty of that on the several weeks a year we’d spend with our grandparents, not doing much of anything that would have directly helped to prepare us for the National Honor Society or high SAT scores.

    Our grandparents were plain, reserved Midwesterners who seldom if ever said they loved us. They just somehow showed it – playing cribbage or euchre, watching The Price is Right or Concentration on morning TV, taking us swimming and for ice cream cones at the Blue Moon afterwards, allowing us to type news stories of the days’ events on their 1920s Underwood, showing us off to their friends or just distant acquaintances at the grocery store, etc. Feeling loved as a child is important to being a successful adult, even if the connection can’t be quantified.

    Many of these children in the mentor program come from homes with an overburdened single parent or grandparent, and a revolving door of other adults who do not provide a stable environment to grow up in.

    As we played Yahtzee a few weeks ago with another mentor and his student on our last time together before next fall, my guy laid his head on my arm for a few moments before it was his turn to roll. That’s worth something to him, me, and in my opinion, a better future world, too, regardless of what status he attains.

    I realize you probably agree with most or all that I’m saying, and I agree that mentor program would probably improve with measurable goals and tracking. Thanks for the thoughtful topics you raise!

  6. […] and to celebrate the life of my grandma. I also worked at The Kettering Foundation for a day, visited the boys I work with in Dayton (all of whom are doing well), spent time bonding with my parents’ cats Sugar Boy, Sebastian, […]

  7. puttysauce says:

    Elizabeth,

    just ran across your post and wanted to say thanks. i’m a new mentor in a program for LGBT kids in DCF or foster care (read: my mentee has had a very tough life, and her being gay has only magnified an already bad situation), and i’m looking for resources on how to be the friend they need while providing some structure and authority in her life. so far, it’s been tough to maintain that balance. luckily, we must make a minimum one-year commitment, so i hope to be able to make some sort of difference in that time.

    i’m going to check out the book Shelby mentions above. if you have any other resources you’d recommend, please send them my way. thanks for the thoughtful commentary.

    -sara

  8. […] Decisions in Mentoring One of the young men I mentor has been having a hard time – went one year away to college but it was too far from home and too […]

  9. John says:

    Hi!

    Just ran into your post trying to find a blog on inner-city mentoring. My experience is very similar to yours. I started out as a tutor, but realized that hanging-in for the long run — consistency — is the key to success (by whatever definition). And, that marginal changes are really the best that can be hoped for. But, things can and do work. Just last night I had dinner with three of my kids, two who are in college now and one who will be a high school senior in the fall. The idea was to pass on the experiencial wisdom of the two college students, which for the most part worked well. Tomorrow I’ll be visiting one of my kids who is in jail, and taking another ,who is on probation for assault, out for the afternoon. Clearly the experience can vary! But the best part is when I am invited to family reunions, Thanksgiving, Grandma’s birtday, and funerals… all because I am now family and not the guy who parachutes in to “rescue” anyone. In my view the idea is to live with people and use the talents and skills I ‘ve been given to be a help where needed, just like any good neighbor. And what are those skills? As a guy told me who had been in prison for 20 years, “John, what you know is how to stay out of jail.” I never thought of it in those terms, I just lived my life. But he’s right, I know how to stay out of jail, I know how to keep the lights on, and I know how to do everyday things, things that don’t seem like much. But they are a lot, to kids and to adults who don’t know them. And just by being a consistent example (although highly flawed) I’m able to pass some of that on to my friends. Sometimes at night I cry a bit because my kids and their families who need so much got so little in the way of mentoring. I mean , they are stuck with me. But, I visit them in the hospital, bail some out of jail, pay a gas bill here and there and try to muddle through. In my view its clear that God gave me the responsibility and gift of my kids and their families, but it is sure hard to live up to His expectations!

  10. ms.bonita says:

    Thank you for submitting your article on mentoring kids-at-risk. I view them as being kids-in-need. In need of a lot of love and support. In need of what ever tool or bodies it need to make it in our everyday lives. Most the all their in need of knowing that someone does really care about what goes on with them,and that they do matter, and make a difference in the world we live in. And that things may seem rough at times, but their is stiil hope. And it lies within them. And there are people out there like you and I,that would like to help them find it. Currently looking for a position in mentoring, and I’m praying that God will place me in a setting that I’m needed most. And with his help and guidence I will make a difference in a childs life. And I look forward to reading th e book mentioned above STAND BY ME.

  11. […] readers of this blog know that have mentored a great group of young men since they were in elementary school (going on 17 years now!). One of the young men and his partner […]

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  12. […] I will give this letter to a 26 year old young man who I mentored for 17 years. I wish there was more I could do than write letters like this. It is so hard to love others and […]

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