How can we prepare mentors to work with children in poverty? Leaders weigh in!

Michael Garringer Now on podcast

by Michael Garringer

One of the biggest challenges for the mentoring field is the often large gap in socio-economic status between those who are volunteering to mentor and those receiving services. Research has shown that mentors in America tend to be more highly educated and employed (this 2005 MENTOR study highlighted that 70% of formal mentors were employed full-time, with 44% having an annual income of $75,000 or more). Obviously, the youth served by most mentoring programs often do not come from such economically-stable environments—43% of the youth in the recent Role of Risk study came from households making less than $20,000/year, with almost a quarter living in “extreme” poverty.

This disparity can have a substantial impact on the development of mentoring relationships. In fact, this wide socio-economic gap was cited in the groundbreaking work of Renee Spencer as being one of the main factors in mentors ending their relationships prematurely. They often felt unprepared for the conditions of their mentees’ lives.

So how can mentoring programs address this topic and prepare mentors for working with youth who come from disadvantaged circumstances? How can these topics be best addressed during training? What resources can help mentors prepare for this circumstance? And is there a mindset or way of thinking about poverty in America that fits well with the work that mentors must do?

We’ve asked several prominent leaders in the mentoring field to share their thoughts. Feel free to add your training ideas and go-to resources in the comments below.


spencerRenee Spencer – Chair, Human Behavior Department, Boston University School of Social Work

I am so glad you are raising this issue, Michael! In addition to feeling overwhelmed by the realities of mentees’ lives, another significant obstacle to mentoring relationship development and sustainment I have observed when interviewing mentors, mentees, and parents is a lack of appreciation on the mentor’s part of the challenges confronting families living in poverty. Mentors can become annoyed by what appears to them to be a lack of organization or discipline on the family’s part. What many mentors may not realize is that the high level of control over their own life circumstances they often experience stems in part from the privileges they enjoy as a middle income person. Having consistent telephone service, reliable transportation, and a highly regular and relatively predictable work schedule are some examples of the advantages of life in the middle class.

As a social work educator, I see some of these same issues arise as new students express irritation at their clients’ missed appointments or a parents’ seeming disregard of the needs of a child. When they take the step to inquire further about the circumstances behind these situations, they learn about the lengthy bus ride with multiple changes a trip to their office requires or perhaps about the chronic illness faced by another child in the family and the gut wrenching choices a parent has to make when deciding how to distribute scarce resources among all of their children. Without training and support around helping mentors to develop greater understanding of the challenges to everyday living confronted by families in poverty, misunderstandings and miscommunications can mount and erode the mentoring relationship over time, even when the mentor and youth have managed to develop a pretty strong connection.


graigGraig Meyer – Director, Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

I’m not a big fan of the “culture of poverty” argument. I find it to be paternalistic (see this article for a good critique). People create culture to make meaning out of their lives, and I just don’t know many people who want the meaning of their life to be living in poverty. Unfortunately, a lot of people have some paternalistic beliefs about people living in poverty. When mentors carry these beliefs, they run a real risk of damaging their mentoring relationship when their belief system leads them to make judgments about their mentee and their mentee’s family. These may start as well-intentioned concerns about a child and their family, but once a child or parent senses even the smallest amount of judgment from a mentor they usually start to withdraw from the relationship.

To me, the biggest impact of poverty is the stress it creates in people’s lives. The stress, in turn, has real impacts on the lives of young people, particularly on childhood brain development.  The stressors of poverty actually shut down important elements of brain functioning, making it hard for children to learn or even just make decisions. Mentors can do things that provide important support which reduces the stressors in a child’s life.  The simplest thing is that mentors who provide mentors with regularly scheduled activities help to reduce stress simply by being consistent. During mentoring time, mentors can reduce the effects of stress simply by doing activities that are the opposite of stress – pretty much anything that is fun, physical, nurturing, supportive, or strength building. While mentors can also be instrumental in helping kids process stressful events or circumstances, I advise mentors not to press their mentees about those things. If your mentee wants to process, be there for her. But sometimes she may just want a break from the more stressful parts of life.

As a program, we try to help our mentors see the strengths in their mentee, the mentee’s family, and the surrounding community. In our pre-service training, we take mentors on a bus tour of the communities where our mentees live. It’s honestly a little awkward pulling into the projects on a bus, but we think it’s important for them to see the community through our eyes and not just hear about it. We do talk some about safety issues, gangs, etc. But we try to emphasize more about the social networks that exist within the communities and the resources that are available within the communities (like an after school center, or a computer lab). We encourage the mentors to spend time getting to know their mentee’s community. We amend an old proverb to say “Yes it takes a village to raise a child, but the village is not a stranger.”


janethJanet Heubach – Senior Program Officer, Washington State Mentors; Carla Herrera – Independent Mentoring Researcher

The recently published Role of Risk report (Herrera, DuBois, Grossman, 2013) examined how the levels and types of risk youth face may influence their relationships with program-assigned mentors and the benefits they derive from these relationships. As you mentioned above, Michael, over two-fifths (43%) of youth participants lived in families facing poverty (<$20,000 annual family income); 23% lived in extreme poverty (<$10,000 annual household income).  Yet, their mentors had very little personal experience with poverty: only 12% had experienced poverty themselves, only about a third had previous experience working with youth who lived in poverty, and ultimately, despite the majority of their mentees facing this challenge, only 29% noted that poverty was a challenge for their mentee.

This “mismatch” between the serious needs of the youth, and the mentors’ lack of experience with and—in some cases—misperceptions of poverty may have had important implications for the matches. For example, a quarter of mentors cited challenges with the youth’s preparation for meetings (e.g., being ready on time, canceling meetings) and another 21% cited challenges with bridging economic differences—both more frequent when mentors were matched with youth high on environmental risk (an indicator which includes poverty).  Similarly, 39% of mentors had unmet expectations regarding the mentee’s family’s needs (again, most frequently reported when youth were high on environmental risk).

The day-to-daCarlaHerreraPhotoy struggles of families facing poverty are overwhelming—with frequent moves, changing phone numbers, busy schedules, etc. Mentoring relationships may be harder to build and sustain when youth’s families face these challenges, particularly when confronting the severe poverty experienced by a significant number of youth in the study. In fact, 38% of mentors reported wanting training to increase their “comfort with the youth’s socioeconomic status and culture.”

These findings suggest that programs should focus more efforts on providing mentors with training and support around poverty—the many faces it can have, and the major implications it can have for match success and for youth’s emotional well-being (almost two fifths of the youth in the study reported high levels of depressive symptoms when they enrolled).  Mentors should be better prepared from the start not only for working with youth facing this challenge more broadly, but also for understanding the circumstances of, and potential challenges of developing a relationship with, the specific youth they will be matched with.


ElPasoBethPicBeth Senger – Director, Big Brothers Big Sisters of El Paso

Because of the prevalence of poverty in our community, El Paso, Texas, and in our neighboring sister-city, Juarez, Mexico we may not run into this barrier as often as many programs do.  Poverty is personally and deeply understood by many of our mentors.  Sometimes, however, this can lead to the blanket opinion that “if I did it {succeeded}, they can too!”  Some mentors offer this in a more “you can do it” encouraging tone, but others are expressing judgment, assuming that poverty is the only adversity the family is facing.  Sadly, parent mental health issues cause more match closures for us than issues with poverty.

So, we do spend time in our initial mentor training coaching mentors on the most common circumstances for our children and/or their family members: poverty, mental health issues, gang involvement, and criminal justice system involvement.  When we have a match identified, we offer further training and insight specific to the child/family with whom we are matching the volunteer.  When we first started our agency, we did home visits with each family and were better able to prepare mentors for what they would encounter, but we do not have the capacity to visit each family’s home any more so we do our best to gather information during the interview and use our knowledge of our neighborhoods to prepare the mentor.

We urge our mentors to respect and recognize that families are in their own place and time and, for the most part, are doing the best they can with the financial, physical, intellectual, and emotional resources they possess.  We urge them to keep activities simple, not to expect to fill every gap in the child’s life,  and to let us know when there are needs for the family we might be able to find community resources to fill.  We explain that by role modeling their own life choices they may get the young person thinking differently about what the future could possibly hold for them.  We try to help them keep their eye on the ball — the friendship with the child.


jrhodesJean Rhodes – Research Director, The Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Great question Michael—and so timely given the widening gulf between wealthy and poor in our country and the consequent growing percentage (22%) of children growing up in poverty. Poverty, particularly when it is early and persistent, is—according to the National Center for Children in Poverty—“the single greatest threat to children’s well-being.” But effective public policies and early experience can help. I do sometimes worry that, rather than challenge the status quo and work toward social justice, I have helped to support it—essentially working to strengthen a formulation that highlights individual solutions over structural change. I’ve wondered if, perhaps my work in this field has merely legitimized mentoring as a substitute for a more equitable distribution of material resources or a concerted youth policy agenda.

It may be pure rationalization, but I remain convinced that this is not the case. There are broader social and political dimensions to our work in this field. First, mentoring programs have provided an accessible context for growing numbers of American high school and college students to perform public service and engage in a world that extends beyond their immediate family and friendship circles. Since early civic participation is the best predictor of lifelong commitment, mentoring can provide an important training ground for future volunteerism.

But, perhaps more importantly, I see benefits of connecting middle-class volunteers/voters with children in poverty. Mentoring provides a lens through which literally millions of middle-class adults have seen the ravages of poverty: decrepit schools with stressed teachers, unsafe neighborhoods, deteriorating housing, and other difficult circumstances. Although many Americans may already know that nearly one in four children in our wealthy democracy lives in poverty, this inequality somehow remains compartmentalized and largely ignored in our day-to-day lives. Yet, deeply connecting with one child in poverty through a mentoring relationship can illuminate its pernicious effects, potentially mobilizing more sustained, authentic action. Support for a coordinated, public response to the out-of-school needs of school-aged youth is more likely to emerge when mentors see how their mentees problems multiply during unsupervised hours. In doing so, mentoring programs are able to develop new constituencies’ for educational and positive youth development programs and policies.

Mentors’ negative stereotypes have also been challenged by the many sources of strength in low-income and minority neighborhoods. When middle class mentors bear witness to the caring that exists in families, religious institutions, and neighborhood organizations, and to the level of commitment, tenacity, and courage that many low-income parents marshal in support of their children, it remains much more difficult to blame the victim. Of course, a mentors’ sensitivity to class and culture is essential, and evidence-based training will help in our efforts to support mentors as they form bridges across income divides.


So what do you think? How big of a challenge is an understanding of poverty, or at least some competence around the associated issues, for your mentors? And how do you try and bridge the gap? Feel free to share your thoughts and training ideas in the comment section below!

8 Comments on "How can we prepare mentors to work with children in poverty? Leaders weigh in!"

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  1. I think of volunteer based tutoring and/or mentoring as a form of adult service learning. Each time the volunteer connects with the youth he/she is learning something about the challenges that youth faces due to the economic conditions of the neighborhood where the youth lives. For most volunteers this is an informal learning process, which is enhanced the longer the volunteer stays involved with the youth, and the program that supports the connection between the youth and volunteer. As this connection grows the bond between some volunteers and youth grows, and the empathy that results, motivates the volunteer to dig deeper into the causes behind the challenges the youth is facing. Some volunteers devote a growing amount of time and resources to removing these challenges and/or helping youth overcome them.

    This animation was created by an intern to show this service learning loop.

    As you look at it, I encourage program leaders, funders and researchers to look at the intersection of the loop. As the volunteer goes to do service every week or month, how can we prepare him/her so he/she is more successful and satisfied, so he/she stays involve longer.

    Many experienced program leaders probably do this in various ways. However, think of what might be done as the volunteer leaves his/her service each week and returns to his/he workplace, family, social network and place of worship. What can we do to train the volunteer to share his experiences and to engage more people in digging into the research on poverty, drop out issues, violence, social inequality, wealth gaps, etc. so the volunteer AND his network learn more about the root causes of poverty, and get more involved in supporting programs that are connecting youth and volunteers in long-term mentoring.

    As you look at this I encourage you to read articles about MOOCs and on-line learning, that I’ve posted at

    There is much we could be doing to connect our volunteers, youth, donors, leaders, etc. in on-line communities where they share ideas with each other, dig deeper into research, and build a constantly expanding understanding of the complex problems that make mentoring programs needed.

  2. Just to give you a little background on myself… I am a 29 year old male who currently mentors 4 or 5 kids that live in poverty in the city of Philadelphia. I come from a very affluent suburban community and had more than my fair-share of opportunities growing up. In 2005, my wife and I purchased our first home in a section of the city that is not as nice as the suburbs I grew up in, but not terrible either.

    After taking a couple years to get acclimated to the city, I decided that it was time to get involved in the community. I decided to volunteer as an assistant football coach at a local high school. To make a long-story short, I will just say that it was different than what I was used to. It certainly took some getting used to.

    Once I settled in and got comfortable, I noticed a real lack of positive support for the young kids I was coaching. Not only were their circumstances off the field less than perfect, but the coaches who were supposed were to be role models were also pretty negative as well.

    In 2011, with the help and support of my wife, we co-founded an organization that mentors student-athletes from under-served communities. It has not been all sunshine and rainbows, but it has certainly been a very educational experience, opening our eyes up to real world around us and teaching us about what truly matters.

    From my perspective, I can say that one thing I have learned from my experiences working with kids in poverty or any community, is that expectations can be deadly. Set your expectations low, and you may be pleasantly surprised, but high expectations often bring with them disappointment. There have been several times where I was scheduled to meet with a young kid, and they either never showed up, or arrived a half-hour late. Initially, I wanted to quit, thinking my time was too valuable to be wasted waiting around, but once these kids realize that you are not gonna give up on them like the rest of the world has, they begin to respond in ways you may have originally never thought possible. Consistency is key. Always show up when you say you will, and when the young kid you are working with doesn’t, forget about it, and move on. Don’t quit, you are making a difference!

    In the above article, Mr. Meyer talk about a mentee’s strengths. I can not stress how important it is to offer positive reinforcement and encouragement to the youth in your care. All day long, these kids are ambushed with negativity, neglected beyond comprehension, so any positive support they receive may be the spark they need to get them to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Focus on the positive!

    I could go for day’s but I just wanted to share my initial thoughts in hopes of engaging some readers. Please share your thoughts and feedback as desired.


  3. Thanks so much for such insightful, helpful comments. I reposted (and credited!) several of them on our Facebook page! Much gratitude! More like this!

  4. Rob Cellucci says:

    I feel that the forum would benefit from having someone with hands on experience express their opinion on the topic of working with children in poverty. Maybe some mentors could share their success stories and/or challenges?

    • Kim Desotell says:

      Rob: I would like to respond to your post. I am the Director of an academic based mentoring program, Phuture Phoenix, based at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. We are a large-scale comprehensive mentoring initiative coordinating service involving learning-outreach efforts with the mission of inspiring academic success, promoting high school graduation, alerting youth to educational opportunities, and providing scholarships to graduating seniors. This is conducted while training university students in best practice mentoring that develops high value employability skills. Our success is measured by our impacts of decreased truancy, and increased GPA for the middle and high school students served. We believe, a hallmark of our success is the training and school-based mentoring component from which the program was originally established. Mentors work directly under the supervision of school staff members as well as participate in a three-credit college course at the University teaching them the dispositions of mentoring as well as providing support to the challenges of working in a high needs school. As a former school principal and at-risk educator, I am able to provide tangible strategies and model effective practices for our Phuture Phoenix mentors in the field. To this end, I believe this type of support must be built into successful mentoring programs when working with high-needs students. The challenges and misperceptions are pervasive for mentors and without the appropriate and ongoing substantial mentor support and training; we would be destined to fail. Instead, the purposeful and ongoing support allows mentors to feel successful, confident and rewarded in their mentor role. I am happy to share more of my experiences in the field and would also invite my college students to share their views and experiences as well!

      • Curtis Miller says:

        Hi Kim,
        I am very interested in hearing more about your mentoring initiative. I am working with the community in Battle Ground WA to establish a collaboration between the school district, faith community, business community, arts community, health and municipality around developing comprehensive mentoring environment. We already have high level buy in from community leaders in each of those six Areas of Influence. More so than I expected. I am now seeking input for development of processes to prepare our community for mentoring and being mentored.
        We are a small community (less than 20k in city limits) with a significant influence in a larger, rural outlying area.
        Could you point me toward research I could use to develop baseline measurements, the strategies you have employed in your initiative and activities you have used to create a culture of mentoring?
        I/we would be very grateful.

      • Kim, thanks for introducing your program. Do you have any information showing the number of youth who have been part of your program in past years who have attended UW Green Bey, or other universities?

  5. Michelle Levine says:

    Thank you for sharing these thoughtful reflections!

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