The concept of mentoring is taking off in this country, giving the adults of today purpose, and the youth of tomorrow a future.
A few days ago, a friend of mine called me in tears. He has been through a bit of a rough patch, so I was holding my breath. But this time there was no bad news. He was just very happy and wanted to share. “I’m so proud of him,” he said when he was finally able to speak. “He’s worked so hard and he so deserves it.” He was talking about the boy he calls his share-child, a now 13-year old he has been mentoring since he was ten. Then, Jarrod*’s father died, which caused his mother to go off the rails a little. For a while, the kid and his sister were floating, from one family member to another, then temporary foster homes and back to Mum. It is safe to say it didn’t do them any good, and by the time their mother was able to resume responsibility for them, especially Jarrod was an angry and confused little boy. More to the point: he was lonely. And without a father and a mother who was only just coping, he was very much on his own. Then my friend stepped in. He and his wife live in the same street and they had been looking at their neighbours’ struggle for a while. In the beginning, food and a shoulder had been enough, but now they felt they needed to step it up a little. My mate is a cricket nut and one day he asked the mother if she and her kids wanted to come to a game. Nothing fancy, the local club playing on a local field on a normal Saturday. They went and had a great time. Since then, the boy has been coming to games a lot. First to watch, then to play, then to help out at the club. It has introduced him to a whole bunch of people he didn’t know before. Boys his own age, but also their fathers, and other men who play with the club. My friend and Jarrod have developed a special relationship over those three years. Apart from the cricket, they have been cooking for the street a few times, eating a lot and now Jarrod is teaching my friend to surf. That was what the crying was about: the share-child had been selected to patrol his beach and pass from the Nippers to the Senior Competition in Surf Lifesaving. A momentous step towards manhood, they both thought.
Of course, what my friend is doing is a form of mentoring, although he would never call it that. To him, and to Jarrod, it was just something that happened: necessity creating possibilities for both. But it has done the trick. Instead of feeling angry and isolated, the boy knows now he is part of a community. The cricket people, the surf lifesavers: they are all his extended family. And my friend is more special than almost everybody else. It is a win-win, as most good relationships are, making both boy and man bigger and better than they are without each other. A few organisations, especially those working with boys, have discovered the power of a positive connection between adults and children. We all know Big Brothers Big Sisters, that matches adult volunteers to kids between 7 and 17 who are “socially and emotionally isolated”. The group has been active in the US since 1904 and has a 40-year track record in Australia, so it is an institution. Tens of thousands of young people have been supported by tens of thousands of volunteers and looking at Jarrod and my mate, I am certain that their lives have been changed by that connection. Big Brothers Big Sisters now also runs an online mentoring platform, OurSpace, throughout Australia, a program in schools and one for young achievers who can be future leaders. The club’s accomplishments go beyond what it achieves for the individual children and mentors themselves. They are financial too, which is always a good argument in a capitalist society. One of the arguments is that angry children make for great jailbirds. And in Australia, it costs on average $1,400 per day to keep somebody in youth detention. To organise them a mentor costs $1,500 per year. With a mentor, kids are 46% less likely to use drugs, 27% less likely to use alcohol, 33% less likely to use violence and 52% less likely to skip school. All potentially expensive habits, both for the individual and their country.
Two relatively new mentoring initiatives are our own AIME (Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience), that started at the University of Sydney in 2005 as a small idea: to give Indigenous kids in high school access to a mentor, usually a university student. Now the scope has broadened. Although Indigenous children are still the focus, the aim of today’s AIME is to “build mentoring bridges between the powerful and the powerless” in a wider sense. Everybody who is disadvantaged is a potential mentee, and every good, trustworthy and motivated university student a possible mentor. At the moment AIME functions at all universities in Australia and quite a few in Uganda and South Africa too. The plan is to be operational in ten different countries by next year, starting with the US and Nigeria. Nine years after AIME, it was Barack Obama who took the concept of the mentor as the mover of change and turned it into the first program that would reach beyond his presidency. In 2014, he launched My Brother’s Keeper, to specifically help out boys and young men of colour. Now it is part of the Obama Foundation, and has grown exponentially. Throughout the US, there are 250 communities in all states setting up systems to connect good men to boys who could do with a helping hand. What is now called the MBK Network organises courses for young leaders too and matches possibilities with those who need them. With Obama’s stardust attached to the Alliance, many hundreds of millions of dollars have been donated, in grants, in-kind resources and cash to help out. Cities have set up their own programs too: Philadelphia vowed to hire 10,000 young men for internships; Compton gave money to a gang violence intervention program, halving the homicides in town in one year; Boston’s mayor set up his own mentoring movement, which has already assisted thousands.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be as big as that. As the Jewish saying goes: “if you save one life, you save the world.” And this looks to me like a world that needs some saviours. Just wondering, could that be you?