By Erika Winston
Recent news stories out of Ferguson, Missouri are disturbing, to say the least. Clashes between protesters and law enforcement have raised numerous questions about proper protocol and race relations. At the heart of the controversy, though, is a young man whose life was abruptly taken. It is a scenario that plays out far too often in the African American community, whether it is at the hands of a police officer or another young Black man. Minority youth are constantly facing situations where their decisions can be the difference between life and death. Without the proper skills to make positive choices, they face a level of risk that many cannot even fathom. Mentors work to arm youth with the tools to make life affirming decisions. By giving their time and energy, these volunteers serve a vital role in the lives of countless young people.
According to a national study of Big Brothers/ Big Sisters, children participating in the program for at least 18 months were:
•46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs
•27% less likely to begin using alcohol
•52% less likely to skip school
•37% less likely to skip a class
These statistics represent the value of a proven mentorship program. These children receive much needed companionship and the security of knowing that they have someone who cares for them and is willing to invest in their well-being. Mentored youth are not forced to handle the daily challenges of life on their own. Instead, they have a trusted adult to talk with about their problems and concerns.
Mentoring Programs in the Richmond Metro Area
The Richmond metropolitan area offers a variety of mentoring programs for area youth. While some of these services are open to youth of all ages and genders, others are geared towards specific economic or age groups. Interested families can also find agencies that mentor specific genders.
The Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) offers a mentoring program for youth who are re-entering the community after a period of incarceration. The specific challenges faced by this population can quickly result in a return to the juvenile justice system. The program works to prevent and decrease this recidivism, through one-on-one mentoring relationships that last up to a year after release. Mentors are expected to spend at least one-to-two hours per week with the young men and women.
According to the program brochure, DJJ mentoring is “committed to improving the lives of youth and reducing recidivism by providing youth with a structured and trusting relationship, introducing effective interventions, and assisting and strengthening youth within the Commonwealth.” While the DJJ program assists youth who have experience with the justice system, most mentoring programs work to prevent these situations.
The Richmond chapter of Concerned Black Men (CBM-R) was established in 1986. Through divisions called “youth corp groups”, the organization provides academic support, conflict resolution training and cultural awareness. College tours and recreational activities are also included.
Camp Diva is another successful mentoring program. Specifically geared towards the challenges of young women, the organization was created in 2004 in memory of Diva Mstadi Smith-Roane, a five-year-old girl who tragically lost her life to a firearm accident. The organization grew from a spa camp into a comprehensive mentoring program. Girls can participate in a variety of activities, including a summertime retreat, as well as afterschool programs throughout the year. There is also a leadership academy, called DIVApreneurship, where young women learn skills in fashion, technology, and culinary arts.
Virginia Mentoring Partnership (VMP) is an advocacy organization, working to promote mentoring that is effective and accessible. “We reach out to school districts, afterschool programs, and volunteer groups to provide training and technical assistance,” explained Elizabeth Bass, MSW, who serves as the program’s executive director. “We help programs recruit new mentors, and refer people who are interested in getting involved in a program in their community. And VMP works to raise public awareness about the importance of mentoring a young person, and advocates on behalf of the mentoring programs statewide.”
The organization has worked with more than 30,000 mentors and mentees over the past 20 years. Bass spoke about one of many success stories. Ms. Mary is a 2014 Outstanding Mentor award winner. She reportedly began mentoring R.J. while he was a second-grader at Southampton Elementary. The young man is now a high school graduate, with a promising position at Amazon. Equally as impressive, he is now volunteering his time at his former elementary school. The young man still enjoys spending time with Mary and has described her mentorship as “one of the best things that ever happened to him.”
Dwayne Bennett is VMP’s Trainer and Mentor Support Coordinator. He explained that a major challenge for mentors is the need for “more guidance and support. They understand that these relationships take time and energy, and they need the tools and resources of strong mentoring programs. That’s why VMP provides ongoing training and follow-up with mentors and mentoring program staff—to keep them updated on what are the best practices to use with their mentees.”
VMP is launching a new series in September, called Mentoring Matters. According to Bass, the program is intended to educate, build, and engage a community around effective youth development. The first event is free and taking place on Thursday, September 11th from 5:30-7:30 at the Science Museum of Virginia. She also shared that the organization is additionally participating in the 2014 Amazing Raise, a 36-hour online giving challenge, to raise programming funds.
Area mentoring programs also include local chapters of national programs like the Boys and Girls Club and Girls, Inc. These organizations have been operating for years to provide youth with the skills they need for lifelong success. Richmond area residents can contribute to these programs in a number of ways. The gift of time is always welcome. After passing a simple background check, adults can share their knowledge and experiences with area youth. Monetary gifts are also vital to ensuring that young people continue receiving the support they need and deserve.
The benefits of mentoring are far-reaching. “Youth who have a mentor do better in school, are more likely to avoid risky behaviors, and make healthy choices,” explained Bass, “while mentors benefit from the opportunity to help their mentees achieve their goals, and share their own experiences and perspectives.”