By December 1, 2015 10 Comments Read More →

Mentoring is not enough: We also need to move upstream

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 5.53.56 PMby Jean E. Rhodes

Imagine that you’re sitting with a friend beside a river enjoying your lunch. Now, picture this: just as you take your first bite, you hear the sound of a child splashing in the river. To your horror, you realize that she is drowning. What do you do?

Even before I hand out the course syllabus each semester, I start my Community Psychology class with this jarring scenario. And I’m always touched by my college students’ knee jerk willingness to jump into the river and attempt the save.

But then things get complicated. I ask the class what they’d do if, just as they stabilized the child on the riverbank, they looked up and saw two more distressed children struggling against the currents. They would attempt another save, of course, with their friend rescuing the second child. Ok, done. But now three more children are being drawn down the river and, just upstream from them, four more. By now, the mood in the classroom has shifted but, inevitably, a student or two reach the wise conclusion that someone should be dispatched upstream to stop the children from falling in the river!

This is the essence of public health – identifying the source of problems, and then implementing policies and interventions that prevent them from happening. This can include anything from putting fluoride into drinking water to developing a public safety net that is strong and wide enough to prevent most children from succumbing to most obvious threats.

Granted, some will inevitably fall through, but with upstream thinking, more lives will remain safe and healthy. It’s helpful to keep this river in mind as we approach January’s National Mentoring Month, and consider the role of mentoring programs in lives of today’s children and adolescents.

Many of the youth served by mentoring programs have been exposed to some combination of personal and neighborhood stress. Some are suffering from a sort of “relationship poverty,”—the all too common by-product of overcrowded classrooms, insufficient enrichment and extracurricular activities, isolated living situations, and parents who are working round the clock just to make ends meet. Such youth may have the capacity to form caring bonds with adults, they just don’t have the opportunities. They are thus well positioned to benefit from a volunteer mentor. In fact, recent studies suggest that, if mentoring programs were to narrow in on this sweet spot, program effects sizes would soar.

The problem is that even if we did, we would never keep up with growing demand. This demand is due, in no small part, to the growing rates of childhood poverty. Although not a perfect proxy for mentoring demand, child poverty is a solid indicator. In fact, according to data from Columbia University’s National Center for Children in poverty, economic insecurity is the “single greatest threat to children’s well-being.” Unfortunately, after a long period declining rates, the past 15 years have seen a dramatic rise in rates of income instability. Nearly a quarter (22%) of U.S. children are growing up in families with incomes below the federal poverty line, and nearly half (45%) now live in low-income families in which low wages and a patchwork of unstable jobs are making it increasingly difficult for their parents to cover basic expenses. This has implications for mentoring programs, since a central goal is to lift children’s life chances. As a generation of children falls through this safety net, we find ourselves in the same position as the overwhelmed picnickers.

Mentoring programs have advanced the lives of many youth. But we need more than river rescues. Indeed, even if we could double the current number of volunteer mentors, recent research suggests that programs would still be reaching less than 10% of the young people in need. Although volunteer mentoring will always have a vital role to play in the lives of children, the sum total of our individual acts of kindness will never compensate for the kinds of systemic changes that are also needed.

 

10 Comments on "Mentoring is not enough: We also need to move upstream"

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  1. I agree with your analogy we need to go upstream and deter them from jumping in to the river. In most case we are dealing with the bud of the problem instead of the root. The good news is the one or two we rescue makes a difference. However we don’t have a river problem we have a oceanic problem that stems from the brokenness in our society. Abraham Lincoln, said,”As the family goes so goes the the nation. Most of the children that we attempt save come form broken families, we need to understand that it’s not a child problem it’s a family, community, and government dilemma that has to be addressed.
    ” A ounce of prevention if worth a pound of cure”. It is more economical to build strong families then to repair them. When family, faith base, community, government decide to invest some time and resources in restoring family values we will make a impact on society.

  2. I agree with your analogy we need to go upstream and deter them from jumping in to the river. In most case we are dealing with the bud of the problem instead of the root. The good news is the one or two we rescue makes a difference. However we don’t have a river problem we have a oceanic problem that stems from the brokenness in our society. Abraham Lincoln, said,”As the family goes so goes the the nation. Most of the children that we attempt save come form broken families, we need to understand that it’s not a child problem it’s a family, community, and government dilemma that has to be addressed.
    ” A ounce of prevention if worth a pound of cure”. It is more economical to build strong families then to repair them. When family, faith base, community, government decide to invest some time and resources in restoring family values we will make a impact on society.

    i

  3. Owen Clarke says:

    Great story Jean.
    In line with ‘upstream thinking’, perhaps we can develop our ‘swimming’ lessons to a level that prepares them with the resilience to swim against most currents.

  4. I love the “upstream” thinking and the visual/story that goes along with it. Incredible the numbers of children we still are unable to serve. Thanks for the thought-provoking article and providing some very important information for mentor recruitment.

  5. Consuelo Staton says:

    Thank you, your words hold so true. I work in public health and I coordinate a program that mentors pregnant and parenting teens so I agree that prevention and education are key strategies. One of the main solutions I see to overcoming poverty is gainful employment- jobs. The root cause is our unrelenting system of the haves and have nots. You cannot pour from an empty cup. Mentoring children may also mean mentoring parents. A 2-3 generational approach to mentoring may be a process to consider. It may take a lifetime to achieve but I know that there are people (including me) out there that are ready and willing to face this challenge.

    • Wietske says:

      Dear Consuelo,

      I am curious to hear more from your pregnant and parenting teens mentoring programma. Do you have a website of can you send me some more information? I am working at University of Applied Sciences in Rotterdam, The Netherlands and we have a buddy programm in which students are mentoring pregnant women in deprived areas. Can you send me your email of website?

      Best wishes,
      Wietske

  6. Jean,

    This is a good analogy. I’ve focused for more than 20 years on engaging volunteers in building systems of support that help kids in poverty move through school and into jobs and careers where they can raise their own kids outside the grip of poverty. There is plenty of information on the Internet that volunteers can learn from, but this has to be encouraged by program leaders, and has to be part of strategies that engage volunteers from diverse business, professional and life backgrounds, and keep them involved for multiple years. Here’s an article I posted on this topic just a few days ago. http://tutormentor.blogspot.com/2015/12/turn-your-tutormentor-org-into-learning.html It’s one of many that I hope mentoring leaders and supporters will include in their own learning, so more people engage in the “upstream thinking” and activities that build mentor-based systems of support for youth in more high poverty neighborhoods throughout the country.

  7. Lauren Porter says:

    Great read!! Thanks Jean!! This scenario is so thought provoking that I will incorporate this story into our pre-service training of mentors. This article reminds me how critical it is for mentors to understand the big picture, have realistic expectations, and to remember that change occurs incrementally and over time. “Upstream thinking” is definitely language I can use in my work. Thanks again!!

  8. Louise Yakey says:

    I teach 144 students in one of the poorest performing schools in the country. I can tell you that poverty is a persistent problem in educational attainment. The students eat two meals at day at school. They are served food that I never feed to my own children. They start their day with worries and tentative living situations and a belly-full of salt, sugar, and fat. By the afternoon, they are sleepy and unable to concentrate. I am a firm believer in mentoring but I agree with Jean – we must address poverty in all areas of children’s lives including the poverty in their schools.

  9. Desiree Robertson says:

    Wow! This really spoke to me. Thank you for a thought provoking article.

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