A+ Advice for Parents

Mentoring Programs Offer Good Volunteer Opportunities

Q: A January TV segment on National Mentoring Month got me thinking: I'd like to mentor young people. So many teens don't seem to know how to set and achieve goals. I don't have "social worker" skills, but I've started businesses and know how to help people develop their talents. Are there programs where I can make a positive contribution?

A: You bet. Many national and local organizations will welcome your experience and skills. Your local high schools may partner with these groups because of the benefits to students.

"Teens tell us that adult role models are important," says Stephen Wallace, director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa. "Studies clearly show that mentors can inspire a teen's educational achievement, shape careers, influence social and emotional well-being, and promote health and safety.

"Mentoring can improve relationships with parents and peers, reduce initiation of drug and alcohol use, and decrease incidents of youth violence," he adds. "The Search Institute finds that young people need at least three nonparent adult mentors in their lives to reach their full potential."

Before you jump in, ask yourself two questions, Wallace suggests.

One, how much time can you commit? "Effective mentoring requires getting to know your mentee and developing trust," says Wallace. "Good mentoring relationships often take a year to evolve."

If you don't have a lot of time, you can still support a youth mentoring organization through special events, strategic advice or fundraising.

Two, are you more effective as an informal or a formal mentor? "A formal mentor is part of an established program and abides by its guidelines," says Wallace. "Informal mentoring often evolves from friendships or situations where an adult sees an opportunity to help."

For example, high school guidance counselors often call on committed volunteers to informally coach first-generation college applicants through the complicated college search and applications process.

Others join formal mentoring programs, such as training to coach for Girls Inc. or for One Million Degrees, a Chicago organization that guides low-income, highly motivated community college students.

Chip Block, a retired Florida entrepreneur, has been both types. He is currently a formal mentor for Young Entrepreneurs Academy (yeausa.org). "Most programs have a structure," he says. "You have to decide if you can be effective within it."

There are many excellent programs looking for qualified adults with good sense and a good heart to volunteer, says Wallace.

They range from Oregon's ASPIRE (Access to Student Assistance Programs In Reach of Everyone), a program that matches adult mentors with students to develop their education goals beyond high school, to the Million Women Mentors (MWM) initiative, whose goal is to engage one million science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) mentors -- male and female -- to increase the interest of girls and young women in pursuing STEM degrees.

To find a mentoring program that's right for you, do a local search of school, college, community, business, service and faith-based organizations. Talk to volunteers involved with the programs to see if their roles appeal to you. For more information, go to serve.gov and mentoring.org.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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