A great place to give your child the best start
When I was growing up I didn’t participate in mentoring programs per se, but being mentored in some way was a defining and critical feature of my childhood. Were it not for my third-grade reading teacher, Mrs. Gartrell—yep, the future doctor was assigned a reading teacher—and my uncle Floyd, the janitor at a state hospital who brought the world to my doorstep through books, stories, and conversation, I doubt that I would have had the academic preparedness and self-confidence to excel in school to the degree that I did.
Before continuing, let’s make sure that we all have a shared knowledge of what I mean by mentoring. The National Mentoring Resource Center defines mentoring as a relationship that “takes place between young persons (i.e., mentees) and older or more experienced persons (i.e., mentors) who are acting in a nonprofessional helping capacity to provide support that benefits one or more areas of the mentee’s development.” These areas of development include though aren’t limited to educational support, assistance with emotional and social development, and help figuring out workplace and career-related issues.
Research overwhelmingly demonstrates that mentoring works for children with a broad range of backgrounds and characteristics. Mentored youth experience healthier relationships and lifestyle choices, increased high school graduation rates, lower high school dropout rates, better attitudes about school, and higher college enrollment rates and higher educational aspirations. Additionally, they report enhanced self-esteem and self-confidence; improved behavior, both at home and at school; stronger relationships with parents, teachers, and peers; and improved interpersonal skills. They are also less likely to initiate drug and alcohol use and to experience depressive symptoms.
Mentoring programs are increasingly replacing the additional help once offered by school systems that now face budgetary constraints and standardization prioritization. These programs also supplement the support provided by extended family members who may not be in close geographic proximity or have the cultural and scholastic tools (or time) to enhance a child’s education.
Mrs. Gartrell and Uncle Floyd were important in my life for another reason—I was raised by a Solo Mom and had nominal contact with my father’s family. So my village was necessary and small. My Solo Mom couldn’t do it all—impart wisdom, provide academic help, feed my voracious curiosity, and warn me about all the pitfalls I might encounter—let alone do it all for three children. So I was lucky enough to have a few people along the way who did. The beauty of mentoring programs is that you don’t have to hope your kid is lucky enough to encounter a teacher who will spend extra time or a relative who can connect him or her to the right social networks and add to his or her cultural capital—this cultural voice, a “Whistling Vivaldi,” is still important in the lives of youth of color. Mentoring programs, at least theoretically, allow you to intentionally build in these critical life lessons, sources of support, and opportunities for growth and development for your children.
As ESME’s Education Guide, I’ve tried to take some of the guesswork out of piecing together a cadre of mentors for your child by reviewing mentoring.org, the website for MENTOR: A National Mentoring Partnership. Sure, there are the tried-and-tested mentoring programs, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the 4-H National Youth Mentoring Program. There are also all of those untapped mentors right under your nose—at your workplace and place of worship, on your intramural team, in your sorority, and so forth. It is often the case that individuals affiliated with these aspects of your life are willing to act as mentors—if only they were asked. However, for those without these resources or those seeking additional support for their children, mentoring.org is a great place to start. After going to the homepage and putting in more than a dozen zip codes from across the country, I found at least a dozen mentoring opportunities for children of all ages, across gender and race/ethnicity; provided through a variety of programs (e.g., secular, faith-based, no cost, paid); and facilitated one-to-one, online, and in groups.
Like anything else, mentoring.org has drawbacks. For starters, there are limited resources available in small towns—though I’m not certain if this is a reflection of the database or a lack of formal mentoring opportunities. A second drawback is that some mentoring program’s web links are outdated. In these cases, what I found helpful were the state and city clearinghouses that provide additional mentoring resources and services. Lastly, mentoring.org caters to both mentees and mentors, making it difficult to tease out which opportunities are appropriate. Still, mentoring.org provides Solo Moms with a sense of the kinds of organizations in their communities offering potential mentors. It is my hope that every child has an array of mentors who bring different perspectives and gifts as well as abilities to bear to each mentee’s life. Mrs. Gartrell and Uncle Floyd were two such mentors in my life.
LaShawnDa Pittman is ESME’s Education Resource Guide and an assistant professor in the American Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Washington. The daughter of a Solo Mom, she soon plans to start the adoption process to become a Solo Mom herself. Twitter: @DrPittmanUW
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