People in general want the opportunity to give back to their community in a meaningful way. Whether it’s improving the environment, helping out a neighbor or reducing risk factors that can harm our youth, there is something that everyone can be a part of. Mentoring is one way that people can get involved to support young people and at the same time, reduce risky behaviors like substance use.
Mentoring is a natural part of child development and most youth are able to identify an adult or older person as a source of support and guidance outside the family. If you think back to your own childhood or teenage years, chances are there is an adult or two that you can point to whom may have had a great impact on your life. Mentors are not there to fix kids or to apply any particular agenda, they are there to build trusting relationships and to be a supportive role model. We all know this takes time and commitment so it’s important to find mentors who are committed to the process.
Mentoring can be a formal or informal process involving many levels of life skill development. It can also be an effective prevention strategy for several reasons. One is that in prevention, we know that relationship building, asset development and community connection are part of a comprehensive approach to positive youth development. Secondly, mentoring may impact several risk and protective factors that may exist in a child’s life.
And how does this happen? Probably the main answer is that we know that positive caring relationships can make a difference. Mentors provide a safe place for kids to talk and to be heard about everyday issues as well as difficult issues like alcohol or other drugs. A mentor provides a non-judgmental listening ear where the child rests in knowing that they can speak their mind and not get in trouble. A mentorship is a place for a kid to ask "what is happening to me"? Or what do you think aboutŠ"? Mentors can help kids come up with some of these answers. A mentor is not a disciplinarian or the authority. Rather, mentors can offer a more neutral or objective perspective on issues. They do not take the place of parents or a supportive community. Instead, they are an added resource to a child’s life.
One opportunity to mentor in Windham County is through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters (BBBS) Program offered through Youth Services. The BBBS model provides the mentors, mentees and their families, neighborhoods, and community institutions with opportunities to foster a healthy and nurturing environment and support the development of productive and responsible citizens. Research has shown that the BBBS program model effectively reduces anti-social behavior, feeling of alienation, delinquent beliefs, propensity for drug use, early onset of alcohol and other drug use, and early onset of aggression and/or violence in BBBS youth.
Youth involvement with a BBBS mentor also has proven to increase protective factors in the child’s life such as the presence and involvement of caring, supportive adults, opportunities for community participation, availability of neighborhood resources, increase of good relationships with parents, social competencies and problem-solving skills, and a positive, resilient temperament.
Youth also get to see themselves as part of a larger community that cares about them as individual people. They need to be seen for the kids that they are and to be supported in knowing that they matter. They also need their dreams and their interests encouraged and their creativity and ideas applauded. Remember, "it takes a village to raise a child", because not every parent has the resources to do so alone.
A mentor is not perfect, but they do provide an "in-the-flesh" role model for the child. Mentoring also can’t solve all the larger issues a child may face, but it can directly address some of these factors. A mentor says, yes, you can and I can and we will. A mentor says, well, this is what I might do and then the mentor says, so what are some things you might do? And then, the mentor listens. The mentor listens hard.
Robin Rieske, MS, has worked as a Certified Prevention Consultant for the Vermont Department of Health for over 22 years. She is also a member of the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition. "Matters of Substance" is a collaborative column of the BAPC. Our goal is to develop, implement and support a comprehensive community effort to prevent and reduce alcohol, tobacco and other drug abuse in Windham Southeast area. For more information or to join our prevention efforts, please visit the BAPC website at BrattleboroAreaPreventionCoalition.org or call 802-257-2175.