by Jill Gurr
WHY, WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Half of the U.S. youth population (17.6 million kids to be exact) is considered to be “at-risk” of getting into trouble with the law, or “high-risk” and already in trouble. This isn’t a problem only in the United States. Street gangs, drug addiction, child prostitution, abuse and neglect are major concerns around the world.
Our children need help!
It’s easy to turn your back and ignore the problem, but what will you do when some kids jack your car? Or rape your daughter? Or spend their entire lives on welfare or in the prison system, on your tax dollars?
DISCOVERING A SOLUTION
One solution that has been proven to work is mentoring. A mentor is a loyal advisor, a teacher or coach, sponsor, guide, confidante and role model. He or she is a special friend who serves as an advocate for the needs of someone else and makes an effort to bring out their best qualities.
I learned this first-hand in 1993 when I mentored a group of teenage boys who were incarcerated at a Los Angeles detention center for a variety of crimes. As a produced screenwriter, I wanted to share my love of writing with troubled kids in hope of inspiring them to change their lives.
I had a great idea for a story about two rival gang leaders from different ethnic backgrounds (Latino vs. African-American) ending up at the same detention camp where they had to resolve their differences.
During the next few months as I worked on our script with the boys, my Screenwriting Workshop went through all kinds of changes. In the end, the boys completed writing the script with me and it was optioned by producers. The best part though was that a number of the kids who were illiterate learned how to read and write through my program. I witnessed other remarkable changes as well — a tough Chicano gang leader had tattoos removed from his body, and several of the boys wanted to go to college.
Thrilled with the results of this experience, I quickly came up with another idea for a screenplay and started a new Screenwriting Workshop, this time at a co-ed detention center. Again, these girls and boys were transformed through their experience of contributing to a screenplay, but especially from my interactions with them every week as their mentor. They opened up their hearts, shared their problems, and flourished under my guidance.
Inspired by these successes, I founded a non-profit organization in 1996. Create Now! matches writers, artists, musicians and other creative individuals in Los Angeles with high-risk kids who live in court-mandated institutions, such as homes for abused and neglected children, runaways, homeless kids and those in trouble with the law.
Through Create Now! I’ve personally mentored more than 50 of these kids and I’ve trained dozens of other mentors to work with high-risk youth. Create Now! has reached thousands of the most troubled children in Southern California.
SO, JUST WHAT IS MENTORING?
You may wonder exactly what is mentoring. It’s not tutoring, which involves the teaching of a skill or discipline. Mentoring depends on the nurturing of a close, personal relationship. While helping with schoolwork can be a part of it, that’s just one aspect. Mentors inspire us to try harder and give us the confidence to reach for more ambitious goals. They teach us how to make good choices and open doors to new opportunities that normally wouldn’t be available.
A mentee, or protégé, is a novice, student or learner. At-risk and high-risk kids can be of any race and religion. They generally come from disadvantaged homes in poor communities. All children need the support of a positive adult, but these particular kids especially need help.
Research has shown that kids who are mentored have improved school attendance and better academic performance, a good appearance and attitude, less hostility, more self-esteem and many other improved qualities that are too numerous to name.
A SUCCESS STORY
Tasha is another perfect example that proves mentoring makes a difference. She came from a poor community in South Central, Los Angeles. A bright girl with many talents, she didn’t get along with her family. When she was thirteen-years-old, Tasha began running away from home. She hung out with boys who got in trouble with the law. She was sent to detention camps and different institutions over the next few years.
I met Tasha at a detention facility when she was almost sixteen. She eagerly signed up for a Create Now! TV Writing Workshop with a professional sit-com writer who prefers to remain anonymous. When Tasha returned to her home in South Central, her mentor continued to visit her weekly. They formed a strong bond.
Her mentor moved to another state, so Create Now! provided Tasha with two additional mentors who helped her periodically. Her original mentor stayed in touch via phone and email. When Tasha graduated from high school, her mentors helped her apply to USC Film School and arranged for a scholarship. She was one of only fifty people in the world to be accepted into their film program.
Tasha graduated from college in December 2004. She got a job teaching disadvantaged middle-school children how to make their own videos. One of her mentors helped her get employed as a production assistant on a TV show and she’s now on the way to a lucrative career in the entertainment industry.
We’re all very proud of Tasha.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME, THE MENTOR?
Mentors benefit greatly from their experience. It’s a powerful feeling to know that you’ve made a difference in someone’s life. Most mentors grow on a personal and professional level through this process. Many people who mentor develop leadership abilities and have a more profound understanding of children. Their own family bonds strengthen, plus they receive admiration and respect from their own peers.
There are different kinds of mentoring. Here are a few:
1. ONE-ON-ONE MENTORING
This is traditional mentoring, sometimes referred to as a “Special Friend” or a “Big/Little” relationship. You’re paired up with one child and the relationship tends to be close. Don’t take this involvement lightly and make sure you maintain your commitment.
2. GROUP MENTORING
With group mentoring programs, one adult volunteer builds relationships with a number of young people. Meetings can take place with a focus on a particular project or an ongoing activity.
3. TEAM MENTORING
A group of two or more adults work together as a team to mentor a group of youths. This system focuses on team building, leadership development, and community service, but it can be used for any type of program.
4. FAMILY MENTORING
Low-income families face enormous pressure getting food and shelter. The stress can severely disrupt family life and lead to homelessness. These families can be matched with mentors who work with them over an extended period of time. [What do the Mentors do here? Encouragement, listening, donations of money or goods? Please explain this one a bit further.]
By using email and chat rooms on the Internet, mentors can reach children all over the world. Many forms of computer-assisted learning are becoming popular, as students have access to computers at school, libraries, and their homes. Think carefully about what your needs are and how you can best serve at-risk and high-risk youth before you decide which type of mentoring program is right for you.
OKAY, I’M IN. NOW WHAT?
There are a lot of things that you can do with your mentees. Many of these kids have never been out of their own neighborhoods.
You could take them on a trip to the beach, a hike in the mountains, a movie, a meal, or a visit to a museum. Expose them to cultural events like the theater or the circus, or just hang out and talk.
Most importantly, LISTEN!
All kids need to communicate and vent. It’s important to hear what they say and be as open-minded as possible. Most kids need reliable adults with whom they can talk about their fears, dreams, and concerns. Mentors serve as sounding boards, and when asked, someone who can give trustworthy advice.
At-risk youth may not have any adults in their lives with the time, interest, or ability to listen to them. High-risk youth who live in residential institutions will rarely confide in staff members, administrators, or even psychologists for fear of punishment. Yet they might confide in you because of the trust that you’ve developed.
It usually takes time, but when they know that they can count on you, they’ll start to open up.
Mentoring requires commitment and responsibility. You must keep your word and be dependable to have a positive effect. If you break your word, you’ll do more damage than good.
These children have been let down by adults most of their lives. Imagine if you come along, full of hope and excitement, and reach out to lend them a hand. They take it and off you go, spending time together and bonding. They slowly open up and start to trust you.
But then something changes in your life; perhaps you get a different job in another part of town, or you’ve got a new boyfriend who takes up all of your free time. Abandonment can be devastating to any child, especially these kids.
It’s okay if you only have sporadic time available to mentor, since even a short amount of time devoted to an at-risk youth is better than nothing. But it’s essential that you communicate this clearly to your mentee. The most important thing is not to set their expectations high only to let them down later.
These children represent our future. Through your support as a mentor, you can introduce them to a larger world where they’re a contributor instead of just another statistic.
WHERE TO SIGN ON
No matter where you live or what you do for a living, you can impact a child’s life. To learn about mentoring opportunities in your community, visit the National Mentoring Partnership at http://www.mentoring.org/.
If you live in Southern California and have a creative skill that you’d like to share with at-risk or high-risk youth, please contact me at (213)484-8500 or through email at email@example.com. You’ll make a big difference in your community, and the world!
Founder and President
Jill Gurr is founder of the non-profit organization Create Now! She has mentored more than fifty high-risk children and youth and has trained hundreds of people to mentor thousands of kids. Learn more at http://www.createnow.org/
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