My Turn: Celebrating National Mentoring Month

  • Monday, January 18, 2016 1:00am
  • Opinion

Mentoring. It’s a word we hear nearly every day. It describes a powerful component of our development — our development in education, in sports, in our careers and in our social and emotional lives — but it has become a buzzword of late — covering all sorts of contact from formal to familial to informal to incidental mentoring.

The focus on mentoring has been a wonderful thing — acknowledging the significant difference our many mentors have made in our lives and providing us with great ways to pay it forward. But sometimes the vast difference in the types of mentoring relationships can confuse or even diminish the way we value the impact of a formal, long-term and targeted mentoring relationship.

Over the 20-plus years it has been my privilege to work at Big Brothers Big Sisters, I have seen the tremendous impact that formal, professionally supported mentoring has had on lives. Children who would have otherwise had very bleak futures have been given the means to achieve success. And the more at risk the child, the more profound the impact. This has been borne out by study after study, not just anecdotal experience. Children who have suffered trauma and abuse, children growing up in families with substance abuse or domestic violence, children with a parent in prison, children impacted by deployment, death, divorce or abandonment, youth trying to navigate through the foster care or juvenile justice system — all of these kids are at significant risk for dropping out of school, early parenting, substance abuse, delinquency and even suicide.

Mentoring isn’t rocket science — and you don’t need to be a saint or a perfect person to be a good mentor. You just need a little time, a desire to make a difference, and the willingness to spend time with a child. When John Wells, acclaimed producer of such groundbreaking television programs as ER and the West Wing, was interviewed about being a Big Brother, he said that when he was first matched with his Little Brother, he thought he had to show up every week with all the answers. As they forged a friendship, he realized that no — all he really had to do was to show up.

The time and attention provided by a Big Brother or Big Sister can make all the difference in a child’s life — changing that child’s trajectory from heading toward being a drain on society to being a productive and contributing member of his or her community.

Helping children succeed in school, helping children develop healthy relationships, helping children avoid the negative behaviors that lead to substance abuse, delinquency, and worse — that is the true power of mentoring.

Big Brothers Big Sisters has been providing long term mentoring relationships to children in need for over 110 years — and in that time has developed practices that have led to the program being named the No. 1 nonprofit serving at-risk youth by Philanthropedia, a division of Guidestar, the nonprofit watchdog organization.

So often when I tell people where I work, they say “oh, that’s such a nice program.” I smile and say “yes, it is — but it is so much more than that. It is a critical program that keeps kids in school, keeps kids out of jail and off drugs and even prevents depression — keeping kids alive!”

Big Brothers Big Sisters not only impacts children’s lives, but those of everyone connected to that child — the child’s family, the child’s classmates, the mentor, the mentor’s family, the future employer and family of the child and the ripple effect can go on and on.

January is National Mentoring Month — providing us with opportunities to thank the mentors in our own lives, to look for ways to share our knowledge with those who can benefit and to support local mentoring programs. To celebrate the critical role that formal long term mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters play in our community, consider becoming a mentor — in as little as two to four hours a month, you can change a child’s life and enrich your own.

• Taber Rehbaum has been CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska since 2009; before that he served as executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters – Greater Fairbanks Area since 1995.

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