By Justin Preston
Welcome to the second of the Chronicle’s two-part series on Youth Initiated Mentoring (YIM). In part one, we spoke with Professor Sarah Schwartz, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Suffolk University, about the Connected Scholars program. The Connected Scholars program is an intervention utilizing concepts from YIM to empower young adults and provide them with the tools needed to build social capital and establish broader social networks.
This week we turn our attention toward a different aspect of YIM: the mentoring program implementation of YIM. In order to gain more insight about the promise and difficulties that accompany the implementation of a YIM-based approach, I sat down for a conversation with Whitney Mastin, Director of Operations for Midlands Mentoring Partnership (MMP) based in Omaha, Nebraska. Mastin and MMP have been implementing YIM in their mentoring programs for more than two years.
Chronicle (C): Thanks for taking the time to sit down today and talk about your experiences with YIM. Why don’t we start with a little bit about what got you interested in YIM as a model?
Mastin (M): I originally became aware of YIM after attending the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring at Portland State University in 2013. Sarah Schwartz presented some of her preliminary research on Youth Initiated Mentoring in the Youth National Guard Challenge Program. Around the same time, research was rolled out about YIM and some of my colleagues at the MMP also became aware of the model. It was just a really interesting iteration of formal mentoring. We liked the fact that it seems to capitalize on natural connections that youth had developed, but still keeping in place the support that a formal mentoring model provided to a youth initiated mentoring match.
Simultaneous to all of this, we had been tracking data on Omaha programs for about five years, and we knew that there were certain populations within our community that were largely underserved. That included both foster care and juvenile justice populations, so we thought maybe this model would work in reaching some of those youth.
C: So before you started implementing YIM, how did you go about setting it up and gaining access to the model to get it running in your organization?
M: I read as much as I could find about YIM — which was really limited. There was the Youth National Guard Challenge research, and I spoke with anyone who would speak to me. A large mentoring program I spoke with confirmed that they had worked to implement this with waitlist kids, and that it had kind of backfired. Families had come to that program with the expectation and understanding that those kids would receive mentors through the traditional model, and the kids stood on the waitlist for a period of time, which is already unpleasant in and of itself, and then they’re told ‘can you find your own mentor?’
That was a really useful piece of information for us because it was so important to introduce the concept of the youth-initiated aspect of the project before anything else. So that’s the way we pitched it. It was also important that it wasn’t us at Midlands Mentoring Partnership running this new program. We’re not in a business of creating new programs, but instead wanted to implement this model in an existing formal evidence-based program as a way to reach an audience that programs have not been able to reach. So we approached existing programs that we had a pretty long-standing relationship with to implement the model and to be something of an offshoot of what they were already doing with their traditional one-on-one, community-based programs.
C: And what led you to identify the specific programs that you have been contacting?
M: First of all, we knew that we were going be using this model to match at-risk youth in the juvenile justice system and we really wanted to focus on organizations that had some experience working with those populations and the age ranges that we were working with. But really for the focus of this pilot, all of these [youths] were, for the most part, between 13 and 17, and so we needed programs that have experience working with older youth. It also needed to be a community-based, one-on-one program.
C: So as you identified the program you want to work with, you put together the kind of model you want to implement, what were the first steps you took when everything was in place?
M: Well, another piece was finding a sole referral source for these youth that could work with us around identifying the kids that would be a best fit for this type of program. I think it can definitely be structured in a way to receive referrals from multiple entities but because this was a pilot project, we really wanted to be focusing and drilling down on who it was we were working with. So lining up the referral source was just as important as lining up the mentoring program partners to help us navigate this new innovation and also to really pick the right kids and manage expectations from the beginning about what their share of the work was going to be.
C: For the sake of clarity, when you say “referral source” you are talking about an organization that…?
M: Yeah. When I say “referral source” I mean an organization that typically works with juvenile justice or foster care clientele, not in a mentoring capacity, but that refers them [the youth] out for other services. Now, even though most of the services recommended from our referral source are required, mentoring was never a requirement. Most programs know you’re not going to get anywhere forcing a kid against their will to have a mentor, and we wanted to obviously maintain the integrity of that piece of a volunteer mentoring program in this project also. So all of these kids were offered the opportunity to participate in this program but the completion of their diversion or probation was in no way contingent upon their participation in the YIM Program.
C: So you’ve got your referral source, you’ve got your program model, you’ve got partners identified, it’s 2014 and you roll out your pilot. What happens next?
M: The way that we structured the program was to have all referrals flow through our agency. So we did not manage any of the matches, or even get in touch with any of the mentors or mentees or families or anything. We received all the referrals, and then were able to match them with the correct agency based on the referral that we received, and then really coach them around how to work with those families and youth.
So we provided a lot of up-front training before we ever began receiving referrals around how we wanted to implement the model, what kind of resource we would be to those mentoring coordinators, what kind of resource the referral agency could be to all of us in helping to get these kids matched. We really needed to create a structure for this to occur. It was not our intention to be the pipeline forever. We wanted to teach these organizations how to use the model effectively and then hopefully it becomes self-sustaining once they feel comfortable with the model and its deviation from what they’re doing in their traditional model.
C: Did you run into any sort of discomfort or resistance on the part of the partner programs on adapting their work to the YIM model?
M: Yes. A couple of things. The first challenge I think was the fact that our relationship, the MMP’s relationship with these agencies really differed drastically from what it had been on previous projects that we had grant funded. In the past, MMP had directed grant funding. Those grant dollars were structured very much in a traditional sense where an organization writes a proposal, the proposal gets funded, they write quarterly reports and a financial report at the end, and that was really the beginning and end of it for us. This project was much more hands-on from our perspective. We were meeting with the mentoring program coordinators weekly, and communicating with them every couple of days on the project. When we would have these meetings we would sit down and ask a lot of questions. Questions like, “If you haven’t been able to reach this kid or family who expressed interest, what have you tried to reach them? Have you tried this? Have you tried Facebook? Have you texted them? Have you tried to friend them on Facebook? Do you know where they go to school? Do you know anyone who works in that school? Do you know anyone who might know them from church? Do you know anyone who might know them from this other organization?”
It was a lot of that strategy, that constant back and forth in order to really come up with the best solution. A lot of times when we were asking those questions we didn’t know the answers either, but it was a really interesting process and I think a great experience because some of the best solutions came out of that dynamic.
I would say the hardest part for the programs was getting into contact with the individuals who expressed interest in the program. Kids would fill out the interest form and say “Yes, I want to do this.” Then a coordinator would follow up within 24 hours to that youth and they wouldn’t get a call back, or a phone number would change, or an email would go unanswered. But once we got them in the door, it was pretty seamless. It was just the making that initial contact. So we really had to be innovative in the ways that we did that. It was a lot of ‘building the car as we’re going down the road.’
We went into this project knowing that we didn’t know all the answers and we were ok with that. This is the second year of the project and I think that finding the right personality fit [has been key]. One of the things we did midway through the first year was a retreat where we spent time getting to know all of the individuals working together on this project. Understanding where everyone is coming from and what kinds of strengths they brought to the project helped to better understand the working relationship. It’s very unique and we’re all working in different organizations and obviously working for individual organizational goals, but also working for a collaborative goal, and doing something that, really, we didn’t have a model to base it off of. So that’s really where our work came in to bring the project along.
C: What for you was the highlight, as an organization, of that collaborative process and building that relationship?
M: My probably biggest “aha!” from the project is that it’s always been our goal as a partnership to reach the kids that are most in need of mentors. But the reality is the kids and families that self-select into these programs, by filling out an interest form or picking up the phone and calling the program aren’t always those kids most in need. This really was our first attempt at finding and approaching the kids and saying, “We think you’re a great candidate for this program, and this is how we want to engage you, this is how you could participate.” Instead of waiting for them to maybe have a teacher or have a parent or someone else around them say, “I think you need a mentor.” I just think that way of finding youth is going to reach into a different pocket that we haven’t been able to reach before. Because of it we’ve really started to rethink some of the ways that we are reaching other populations, and maybe the kind of outreach that we should be doing to engage those populations instead of just putting up billboards and commercials and waiting for them to hear about the program and show up at the door.
C: What, for your organization, has been challenging in continuing a YIM implementation?
M: I think that our next challenge will be how to scale this. For instance, we’re starting right now with the diversion kids. That’s an important population but in terms of the juvenile justice system that’s still the lowest rung on the ladder. As we look to matching more probation, and even potentially more detention kids, there’s definitely a need for that but how do we scale out the work that we’ve been doing so far? It’s scaling that I think is going to be our next challenge. It’s not necessarily “easy” [to implement YIM], it does require some intention and accountability. I definitely think the right kind of personality types; people that are comfortable maybe stepping outside of the comfort zone and in an organizational culture that supports that kind of level of innovation. So I think that scaling it out is going to be the biggest challenge we’ll run into. I think it can be done but if it were that easy it would have already come to fruition in other entities that have attempted implement YIM.
C: Do you see YIM as being a model that can self-sustain on its own once a framework is created and it’s gotten off the ground?
M: I think so. When we’re talking about our iteration of YIM – because YIM is kind of this all-encompassing term – so when I’m talking about scaling it, I’m really talking about our iteration of how we’re doing YIM. I think that there are definite ways that it can be done, it just needs to be set up in a way that people are willing to try something different and work with community partners in a way that they haven’t before. I think there’s a lot of talk about collaboration and collective impact and there’s a huge grey area about what it all means but this is true collaboration. When you’re talking to people weekly and your successes are all shared successes, it just really is a different way of working than what we’ve done in the past. Working with a referral source very closely I think is really important too.
C: Your discussion of collaboration sparked a question: how has it been, as a process, getting buy-in from the community in which you’re drawing mentees? And then as a follow-up, how has that changed over time if at all?
M: The thing that’s exciting about the Youth Initiated Mentoring Project is it gives the youth a voice in who their mentor is. It gives their parents a voice in who that person is. It’s someone that, in some way or another, has made a connection that’s valuable with that kid and with that family. We’ve heard that anecdotally from the programs as they’re matching these kids, and we’ve seen it now with some of the latest research that’s come out from the interviews with the parents and kids that it just is – there’s a level of trust and mutual understanding that’s there from the start instead of taking 6 months or even longer to build in a traditional program. I think, too, most mentoring coordinators will agree that if they can get a match to a certain place, 6-month mark, 8-month mark, whatever, then the rest is just kind of gravy. But getting the mentor and mentee to that place is what programs work so hard at. With Youth Initiated Mentoring it’s already organically there. So it is more well-received by the family and the youth, and, I think, the mentor.
We didn’t really know what to expect going into this project as to who these youth would identify for their mentor. It’s a population we didn’t expect, but it’s a lot of past school personnel, past coach, past afterschool program, past babysitter, and so on. A lot of people who are already working in the helping profession or working in the education world. A lot of those people are not also going to [independently] agree to be a mentor because that’s what they do from 9-5, 5 days a week. But when a specific youth approaches these adults they’re overwhelmingly more likely to say yes because suddenly it’s not XYZ program coming to me and saying, “Hey, we think you’d be a great volunteer mentor, we’re going to match you with a kid you don’t know.” It’s, “Sam, who I had in my third grade class, who’s now in eighth grade who I must’ve really made some kind of an impact on because he remembers me 5 years later and wants me to be his mentor.” People really felt flattered. There was less managing expectations. If these adults already know the youth or the parents, then they know what to expect when they’re getting into the relationship from the mentor side. So I think that’s a huge piece of the program that’s really contributed to its success.
C: What about kids who are initially unable to identify anybody who may serve as a mentor in their network?
M: We have great professionals who really have the right skills to dig that out of a person, and we don’t expect to ever go into a meeting and having a kid already identify a person. It really is about taking them through the different stages of their life, the different places they go regularly or have been. So it’s really thinking through all of the avenues that kids have to intersect with important adults. I would estimate the vast majority – around 80% – are able to identify somebody. But, in the case that they’re not [able to identify someone], and they still want a mentor, we match that kid in the traditional way within a program.
C: So you’d say that YIM and formal mentoring can be supplementary to each other, not necessarily a replacement for one or the other?
M: I think that they can definitely be complimentary. I also think that the other thing that’s really important to know with this pilot is that we really want to be building a skill for these kids: to be able to identify helping adults and then approach that adult. So the program lays the groundwork for the adult that the youth has selected to become their mentor, but there still is a component where the youth has to ask the adult, “Will you be my mentor?” Just saying those words and going through the process of thinking through the people that might be able to provide that additional support was really important, because a lot of these kids are 15 to 17-18 years old, close to high school graduation, whether they’re going on to technical school or post-secondary education or just going into work life, they’re going to have to get help along the way. But not everyone has been given an opportunity to really think about who those people should be and have the experience – the positive experience – of asking that person for help. Don’t we want to have that kid have some kind of a support lined up where they can still tap into that advice and guidance and support when they need it?
So I really do think that there’s a lot of ways that the two can complement each other, and I like the fact that YIM helps kids have those experiences while they’re still kind of under the safety net of this program. That’s so important, especially for these youth who have probably never approached an adult in this way in their lives.
C: We talked about the scalability being the next frontier for YIM. What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned from the pilot and then this year of running the program that you’re then going to take into that next stage?
M: I think finding the right people. I know I’ve said that several times today, but finding people that are willing to dance in the land of innovation and not get freaked out. The other thing I think is the importance of communication with all the entities involved about the differences between mentoring and youth initiated mentoring. The expectations up front for the family and youth are really different, so creating a space where they understand that this is different [is critical]. The concept in and of itself is a concept that really resonates with people, it’s just operationalizing it that is the tricky part. There are a lot of different iterations to youth initiated mentoring, but for our specific purposes in reaching a population that our community hasn’t reached with traditional programs, that was really why we got into this game.
C: I know that you’ve touched on this tangentially today so far, but are there any types of programs where this model might not be as good of a fit?
M: If somebody can tell me how to do youth initiated mentoring in a group model I’ll give them a gold medal. That’s the thing too about group mentoring that it’s not just the dynamic between the adult and the youth but the dynamic between the youth [themselves] that’s really important to consider. So finding four youth that connect with the same adult and have that same desire at the same level is challenging, to be honest. So I see that as a little bit of a potential hindrance. The other thing is implementing it in a site-specific program where mentors and mentees have to meet during this time of day, or during this specific day of the week, I think would be hard because youth would not only have to find a mentor that was willing and that they gravitated towards, but also a mentor who could meet them within that time frame. So some of those kinds of things I think would be a little bit harder. That’s why we chose [a community-based approach], because the mentors and mentees can really meet when it works best for them.
C: I think that it’s difficult when you have the need for a very structured intervention and you’re going off of, essentially, a more informal network to operate within and so people are less likely to be able to devote that kind of time and effort in such a setting.
M: Absolutely. So I see that as a challenge, but I think too we’ve had the question, “does it work with little kids?” I think it could work with younger kids but I think the parents would have to be a lot more involved in the decision-making process of who that mentor was. I do think the sweet spot for this program is middle school and high school aged kids because during that period of development they’re already kind of yearning for some independence and having their voice heard.