FORUM: Does mentoring work in rural areas?

by Mike Garringer

In my time as a technical assistance provider in the youth mentoring field, some of the most difficult and persistent challenges I’ve seen are those faced by rural mentoring programs. While running a high-quality program is difficult in any town or urban environment, the challenges faced by rural programs are considerable: geographic distance between program participants, a dearth of easy-to-do activities, a small fundraising and volunteer base. And in the smallest of small towns, such as those in the area of Iowa where I’m from, you also get a healthy dose of “every knows everyone’s business” issues that can make building trusting, confidential mentoring relationships difficult.

So can youth mentoring really work in rural environments? What challenges do these programs face and how do they overcome them? And is it possible that rural programs actually have some advantages over their urban counterparts?

To answer these questions, I’ve asked a panel of leading experts on running programs in rural areas to weigh in on the promise and hurdles of offering mentoring in rural areas.


Kathryn Eustis – Director, Youth Development and Prevention Programs, Calaveras (CA) County Office of Education

Not only does mentoring work in rural areas, I believe that mentoring has the potential to be even more influential for youth in rural areas than in urban areas. There may be greater challenges in building and sustaining a mentoring program, but mentoring itself can be extremely powerful in a small community. 

In the first place, isolation for vulnerable rural youth is literal, not figurative.  Our kids often live miles away from their neighbors and are literally stuck at home, often with nothing to do but watch TV and play video games.  The opportunity to hang out with a safe, fun adult has also meant the first time ever going to a restaurant or movie theater; the first time hiking, fishing, or exploring in their own community; or the first time visiting a home that is quiet, clean and safe.  For youth who haven’t been exposed to extreme violence or drugs, simply reducing their physical isolation and letting them know they are valued can have an enormous impact.  They are like thirsty plants, because their self-esteem and social skills increase incredibly quickly. 

Another powerful way in which mentoring works in rural areas is the potential of each mentor-mentee relationship to affect the entire community. In a rural environment, socio-economic differences manifest in cultural—and geographic—gulfs in the community.  It is very easy for more comfortable, affluent community members to avoid acknowledging the challenges faced by other community members and to judge the kids from the “bad” families.  Mentors act as bridges across those gulfs, allaying fears of the Other on both sides while they build relationships that weave the entire community closer together. The fact that many people know each other in a small community is an asset once the process gains momentum; adults begin role modeling compassion among their peers just as much as they do for their mentees, and opportunities open up for youth who would never have had them.


Karen Shaver – Vice-President, Agency Services, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada

In Canada, Big Brothers Big Sisters is an established organization with 100 years of experience behind it.  Our name conveys credibility, legitimacy and quality to families across the country which results in numerous requests for service from communities, urban and rural and remote.

Our organizational approach – the establishment of an independent agency requiring a Board of Directors, a charitable number, etc. – is an effective model in urban centres.  However, Canada has many rural and remote areas that may not be best served by that organizational structure and where our formal mentoring programs may not be a fit.  Picture Flying Dust First Nation, a Cree community of about 800 people, in a fairly isolated part of Saskatchewan.  Or Carcross, Yukon Territory, a primarily First Nations community, of less than 300 people, with one road in.  Or the many fly-in communities, or ice-road only access communities, that dot the far, and not so far, North.  It just isn’t reasonable for Big Brothers Big Sisters to assume that our model of structure and service delivery will be effective or feasible.

But that doesn’t mean that mentoring won’t work.  In fact, informal mentoring has worked in these communities for centuries.  It’s when we try to impose our structure, our Standards, our beliefs of what is right and our urban model of mentoring that we concoct our own challenges.  By listening to the strategies that have been effectively employed, by understanding the strengths and resources that already exist in rural and remote areas and by truly understanding and applying the core components of the elements of effective mentoring relationships and programs, we can work alongside community members to tailor mentoring relationships and programs that can work well.


Dr. Susan Weinberger – Founder and President of the Mentor Consulting Group

Unquestionably, in rural communities, recruiting mentors for youth is a challenge. Distance is a factor. How do you spend an hour a week with your mentee when you might have to travel an equal amount of time just to get to the session? Let’s look at the positives. It takes a whole village to mentor a child. In my experience, I think it is actually an advantage to mentor in rural areas because often the community wants to help their own within a five mile radius of where they live. There is a built in community bond there that is often missing in urban programs.

A few years ago, I designed a program in Port Aransas, TX. Most get to this fishing village by boat. Soon after I arrived, the folks wanting to begin the program said, “Who will we get as the mentors? We have no other industry here. Not even a bank…”  Well, we used the village as our base. We recruited the local fishermen — who became mentors for the youth — and many of the mentees became interested in becoming fishermen and wanted to learn the trade.  A career-based mentoring program developed before our eyes. We also recruited the only doctor, postman, fireman, and policeman, all of whom became mentors.

However, there are many rural areas where there is a challenge to match mentors and mentees.  In my work in Indian country, many of the reservations have youth that live a long distance from the interested and prospective mentors.  The solution for them has become  e-mentoring – three weeks a month with supervised, software-based computer generated discussions, and in-person meetings once a month.

Another way to approach this in rural America is seen in the work of organizations like the local Boys & Girls Clubs where youth thrive in a safe haven after school.  The schedule for meetings is much more flexible.  The mentors meet the mentees after work, often between 3 – 7 p.m., before the Club closes. This flexibility of meeting times can alleviate some of the scheduling issues that challenge rural programs.

Rural America needs to become creative in terms of finding mentors.  These programs may not always look like their more traditional urban counterparts, but the outcome can be incredible for mentors and mentees.


So what do you think? If you run a rural program, tell us about your biggest hurdles and how you overcome them. Are there things that may be easier for you than your urban counterparts? Add to the comments below…we’d love to hear your best practices for mentoring in rural areas!

6 Comments on "FORUM: Does mentoring work in rural areas?"

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  1. Sonja B. Edwards, MS-RPM Coordinator says:

    Mentoring works! When it is done consistently and effectively it will change lives; the person receiving the mentoring just has to want change. Intervening in the life of a young person as early as age 10 can make a tremendous difference. Having worked in this for over 15 years now, I wanted to know if mentoring worked outside of Youth ChalleNGe so I started a school-based mentoring program for 6th-8th grade called Mentor Works. The program was a HUGE SUCCESS…in fact, it was so effective that the school’s principal meant with the School Superintendent to have the program extended as she was amazed at the profound impact it made on some of most troubled students. This was an eye-opening experience for me. It is the responsibility of every adult to make a difference by reclaiming our youths. If we don’t take an active stand against crime, violence, teen pregnancy, and everything else facing our young people…we will find our backs completely against the wall as we (the adults) struggle to fit in their world (the out-of control youths). It is my mission, my passion to help save as many young people I can through the power of “effective” mentoring…after all, what do we stand to lose in not attempting to do so. Yes, I totally agree that mentoring can impact rural areas…to be honest, I believe mentoring can change the world when it is done effectively and consistently. Kids won’t be better until they know how much you care. Mentoring is more than service to the community; it is a privilege calling that few will answer.

    • Evan Cutler says:

      Hello Sonja B. Edwards! Thank you for sharing your success story and your passion for youth mentoring. It is wonderful to hear that the principal and superintendent were so impressed by your program. If you don’t mind me asking, what type of measurements and/or data did you share with your school principal and school superintendent? Maybe changes in GPA and/or MCATS scores? Behavioral changes? Maybe you made a point of inviting the principal to observe the school-based mentoring sessions? Many readers here at The Chronicle have an interest in program evaluation. If you have the time, please feel free to share any program evaluation tips or strategies you found helped your program demonstrate its success to your school’s leadership.

      Lastly, thank you for your contributions to ChalleNGe! The Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring is privileged to have collaborated with ChalleNGe in the to past to research their model of youth-initiated mentoring.

      – Evan Cutler
      Asst. Director of The Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring

  2. Jessica Cunningham says:

    I’ve actually been looking into e-mentoring for my thesis. Through my preliminary search, I found an interesting study about e-mentoring around science and math for rural students in Canada by Qing Li, Lynn Moorman, & Patti Dyjur (2010). The results of the study seem promising as students who received e-mentoring had increased confidence in their proficiency in science and math as well as excitement or interest about careers in the field, as compared to a control group of their peers who did not receive the e-mentoring.

    • Evan Cutler says:

      Jessica, thank you for the research recommendation! It looks like the title of the research paper you found is called “Inquiry-based learning and e-mentoring via videoconference: a study of mathematics and science learning of Canadian rural students”. Unfortunately, it looks like it is behind a paywall (i.e. only subscribers to the journal can download) so Chronicle readers will need to visit their local public library or university library to get a copy. Research as to the effectiveness of e-mentoring is still ongoing so we’re always curious to read more about the potential of videoconferencing and other forms of computer mediated communication in the field of youth mentoring.

      – Evan Cutler
      Asst. Director of The Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring

  3. Susana Jackiewicz says:

    I totally agree. We too have been providing services for over three decades, in a rutal area, and securing adequate financial support has always been a problem. We have not found the answer yet. My board, which is small, helps with many fundraising events so I have the added issue of board burnout as well as donor burn out. I would love to hear from anyone who has satisfactory resolved these issues or has ideas regarding this.

  4. Dena Valin says:

    I would add to the debate that there is the real challenge in rural communities in the way of funding and sustaining mentoring programs, as mentioned in Kathryn’s response. My agency has struggled significantly with this in the last few years, even after serving this community for over three decades! I think there tends to be a disproportionate number of nonprofits in rural communities trying to meet the needs, especially when compared to the size of the population in that community. This can lead to donor burnout with more donors being hit up for support repeatedly from many worthwhile organizations. In essence, the pool of resources for nonprofits to draw on in their rural communities is much, much smaller than in urban areas, yet the need can sometimes be just as great.

    Couple that with the fact that very few corporations are located in rural communities, so securing corporate support is quite the challenge as well. Without a larger pool of donors to draw on, I believe you see much more donor fatigue than you do in urban areas, and finding new donors to replace those that are burned out is harder to find, hence the sustainability challenge.

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