Friday, October 22, 2010

The Obligation and Joy of Mentorship

As I approach 30, I begin to understand just what my elders were trying to say to me fifteen years ago.  What a learning curve. 

Some teens are lucky enough to have someone in their lives who cares about them enough to check in with them randomly, or because of hints dropped here and there, just to offer an ear or a shoulder to cry on or whatever is needed.  These would-be mentors don't have anything in it for them.  They're not parents and they aren't getting paid to be in the teen's life.  That situation is a rare one, and it is one I think is more and more important these days.

Once upon a time, community organizations helped to foster this type of relationship.  I'm not talking about the parent of a friend, I'm talking about someone who doesn't have any alterior motive for being a friend and mentor.  Previously, religious organizations fostered this type of relationship.  In churches, for example, numerous adults would be present and involved in children's lives in various situations.  Volunteering at different charities, Sunday School, Youth Group meetings, special events were all places for children and community adults to interact.  It was a positive thing that enriched the lives of all involved.  But what happened? Where are these kinds of relationships now?

In an era where churches are not able to speak to the spiritual needs of most 20-30 somethings and young families are frequently only interested in "what the church can do for me", many children and potential mentors are missing out on this type of relationship.  Add to that the fact that there really isn't an alternative, like non-profit volunteering, as most 20-30 somethings will only volunteer when it is convenient to them, and we're missing a very important aspect of our society.  One I would argue is crucial.

One of the arguments many make about education is that it is most successful when relationships are built.  This idea what the foundation on which my time in Americorps was predicated.  So some of the mentorship was moved into government initiatives.  Others were moved into non-profit initiatives like CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).  But these are primarily for those who are most needy as perceived by society.  Don't misunderstand me, we definitely need these types of organizations and I feel the volunteers do an amazing service in our country and for the children they help.  As usual the problem becomes that the middle children get lost.  Who spends time with them? Who cares about them? If there is nothing to make a child or teen stand out as being exceptional one way or another, who gives that young person mentorship?

As someone who remembers what it was like in junior high and high school and who recently became an aunt (through marriage - those who know my younger brother, don't worry!) I think its more important than ever for adults to take a little extra time for young people.  I remember so many different adults when I was growing up, not only in my church (so many from church!) but also in the music community (Thanks Margie and Ed!), and friends of my parents (Ben, Rasul, and Marly) in addition to family members (my grandmother and my aunts and uncles) who made a difference in my life.  I can't imagine what my life would have been like without these people.  They gave and continue to give me so much.  As someone who feels like I finally reached adulthood, I think it's time I do the same.

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