Can you remember times during your adolescent years when life seemed to be particularly hard; you jumped one hurdle and then something else occurred and knocked you down; up you got again and something else happened? Small rocks to stumble over, bigger rocks to obstruct your pathway. How did you respond?
Thinking about this led me to some work I did a while ago looking at how youth mentoring programs help young people coming from a high risk environment, reminding me of a check-list, if you like, that would be invaluable to anyone mentoring such a young person.
As I thought some more, I was reminded of the years I spent informally mentoring Walter (not his real name), a teenager from a high risk, volatile environment in South Africa during the dark days of apartheid. I learnt so much about life from many interactions with Walter – an amazing young man.
Walter arrived at the School where I was teaching at the time and was placed in the Boarding House of which I was the Housemaster.
Walter’s mother was a domestic servant and he was, in his own words: “.. a young man from the townships who could not even speak English. I was scared but excited. I had to prove myself. Here were the white boys who had privileged positions all their lives. Their primary education was preparing them to be the bosses, whilst mine was to serve their interests. Here I had to compete with them on the same footing. I can tell you it was not easy.”
There were approximately 60 to 70 boys, aged between 12 and 18 in each Boarding House, and Walter had to settle fast, as well as find his way. He was a keen sportsman, playing Rugby and Cricket, though was particularly fond of Football (Soccer). Walter attended the School on a Scholarship, so clearly his potential had been acknowledged by the Company supporting him.
There are millions of young people like Walter and what follows are 10 ways, not in any specific order, youth mentoring programs can help young people from high risk environments become the best they can be. As I share these 10 tips, I’ll weave Walter’s story into the journey.
1. Help the mentees realize their potential, to become the best they can be.
Walter had strong opinions of his own, yet he was prepared to listen, to weigh up other viewpoints and then decide how he would respond. Arriving at a new School, which he desperately wanted to attend, he initially struggled for a variety of reasons. Walter writes: “Typical of white preconceptions, they thought I was “thick” [stupid] mainly because I was black and I had had a bad education for about seven years. They put me in the bottom groups or “D” classes. Here was the opportunity to prove myself. I knew there were people who believed in me ….. through perseverance I climbed up the ladder. Everyone knew there was Walter who was counted amongst the “boffins”. I knew I was not a boffin, just a somebody who had, as our Human Kinetics teacher used to say, “spine, guts and determination” … “
Walter seized every opportunity that came his way and sought to make the most of it. My role, initially from a distance, was to encourage him and allow other staff colleagues who taught and coached him, as well as older students in the House, to offer him further guidance. As he moved higher up the School, he and I began to converse more.
Never underestimate the importance of significant adults in the life of a young person. Mentors should actively encourage mentees to seek out more significant adults to take on the role of non-judgmental Cheerleaders in their lives.
2. Develop positive values in mentees.
Role-modelling is so important and I only realized how important my encouragement of Walter had been after he had left School. He was at University and I invited him to help me facilitate a non-racial Youth Empowerment Symposium I was organizing. As he was one of the founding participants in these Symposia, he had much to offer. He was settling into University life and having to deal with further challenges. After the Symposium he sent me a brief note: “Thank you for the ‘talk’ we had on Saturday night. It’s very rare that I actually get someone who I can relate my problems to; but you are there and you certainly revitalized my motivation about my whole career at Varsity [University]. Now what I say to myself: if you can be able to do so much, then why can’t I? – and that is what keeps me going.”
Through his time at the School, Walter would have picked up a variety of morals and values and, as he moved on to University, these would have shaped his personal value system that he would be constructing.
3. Guide mentees towards more reliable attendance at School or work.
Although Walter had challenges to deal with at School, at no point did he not want to attend. As he mentions above, he was motivated to ‘climb the ladder’. Walter shared his experiences with a group of students after he had left School: “They say that if you do not know where you are going, you probably will end up anywhere. You must have set yourself realistic goals. Have them written down. There is nothing as gratifying as ticking off those goals that you have achieved. You are essentially measuring and awarding yourself. You must have a role model: see yourself as that person and work towards that.”
One of my roles had been to guide Walter on the goal-setting journey. The goals were his and we reviewed them every three months during the last two years of his School career. He was focused and had a reason to attend School and, it’s along these lines, that mentors can open up discussions with mentees. If they know there is someone who cares about them, is listening to them and helping them find meaning and purpose in their lives, mindset changes will occur. The fact that they are accountable to that non-judgmental Cheerleader, motivates them to work hard to achieve their goals.
4. Improve the social and communication skills of your mentees: in relationships with family and extended family; with a focus on behavior, attitudes and appearance.
I know that what impressed teaching colleagues about Walter was the pride he took in his appearance. My guess is that, having come from a disadvantaged, high risk environment, Walter was seizing every moment he could to become the best he could be. He knew how important it was to take a pride in his appearance, as we spoke about this at House meetings, had uniform inspections and we tried to instill in the students at the School the importance of being proud of who they were. Coaching mentees about appearance, body language and positive communication skills, will enhance their options as they move out into the world beyond School.
Walter created a network of support around himself. In addition to his mother, the Company supporting him on his Scholarship, and some close peers, Walter also had strong support from the family who employed his mother. In addition to teachers, Walter was hearing messages from a variety of people that he trusted, that they believed in him.
Walter, after leaving School, and addressing students at the non-racial School I had moved to as a Headmaster, said: “Always think positively about yourself and the situations you find yourself in. You must see problems as opportunities to prove yourself. Believe in yourself and your ability to tackle problems. Have a positive self-esteem, don’t be arrogant. There are no failures in this world, just men and women who don’t know how good they are and they are not willing to find out.”
5. Improve the self-image of your mentees.
As the non-judgmental Cheerleader, the mentor plays such a significant role in the life of the mentee. As the trust is established, conversations go to a deeper, more personal level and, as I experienced with Walter, they will share more of their personal feelings, something boys find much harder to do than girls.
Walter shared some of that thinking in the previous point. We talked about goal-setting, community service and lots more. Yet it was the comments Walter shared with students that provide some insights into how he developed his self-esteem during his School days: “Mistakes are learning opportunities. Do not be afraid to make a mistake. You can only learn from your mistakes. As the old Chinese proverb says, “success does not consist in never making mistakes, but in never making the same one a second time.” There are many obstacles that you have to overcome; there are people who want you to make mistakes so they can be happy. They channel their energies into making sure you fail. Don’t worry about them. They are the real failures, not you.”
A smile from a mentor, a brief positive comment that is relaying the message, “I believe in you!” must never be underestimated.
6. Expose your mentees to positive new experiences such as community involvement; different cultures and activities.
One way a mentor can successfully impact the life of a mentee in a high risk environment is to take him or her out of that environment and talk about possibilities. In a way it’s a Catch-22 situation, as we want our mentees to become pillars of their communities and be the change-agents, though, maybe, as Walter experienced, it’s important to remove oneself from that high risk environment for a while to discover who we are?
Walter took advantage of all the activities on offer at School. If he had an issue, it was deciding where to curtail his involvement as he approached his final year at School.
Walter and I firmed up our relationship when he volunteered to attend the first South African Youth Symposium (SAYS) I organized in the late 1980s, hosted by the School we were both members of. The purpose was to bring students and teachers from all races and cultures in South Africa together, to meet, to break down racial barriers and assumptions, to have fun together, to be challenged by keynote speakers and then to return to their communities to become positive change-agents preparing themselves and others for the post-apartheid South Africa whenever that would inevitably occur.
The School students helped me organize the Conference and were the hosts when students from all around the country arrived in their busloads.
I watched with pride as Walter mixed with anyone and everyone, had lots of fun, joined in the debates and revealed some significant leadership skills.
What was occurring was that Walter was identifying with some deeply held beliefs of mine that he had probably not yet fully appreciated, seen the risks being taken to organize the Symposium – visits from the Security Police and I was pretty sure my telephone was being tapped – yet, together, we were buying into the vision of what a non-racial South Africa would look like, feel like and be like. They were exciting times. Walter and a couple of other students were active helpers for a couple of years as I organized these Symposia – they were great role models to all their peers.
7. Enhance a sense of social responsibility in mentees.
It is generally agreed that too many adolescents are living in a world of instant gratification and entitlement, with too much focus on ‘I’ and not enough focus on ‘WE’.
As mentors we can encourage our mentees to start thinking of others and exploring with them small things they can do to become positive change-agents in their communities. When they feel accountable to the mentor and supported, you will be amazed at what these young people are able to achieve. I have seen so many examples of this during my teaching career.
Last year, for example, I worked with two students who had a strong sense of responsibility to do something to support Cancer research. They organized a significant fundraising event, my role being to encourage them, guide them, help them sort out the financing of the activity and be there on the day to support them – the authentic Cheerleader. They raised over $2000 from the activity and, better still, this year they mentored two younger students who wanted to carry on what could well become a legacy started by two of their older peers.
Walter wrote: Help others if you can. It can be very satisfying when you know that you made another person better off. People will return the favor. Start now whilst you are still at School and make it a habit!”
8. Improve conflict resolution skills of mentees.
Coaching and teaching young people how to deal with conflicts is a significant contribution mentors can make in an adolescent’s life journey, especially in the 21st Century where so much communication occurs through social media and so young people have little understanding about interpreting facial gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, body language and a process to follow if they are in conflict with someone and don’t wish to see it escalate.
As so many mentors I have trained have made me aware that they themselves need to improve their skills with regard to resolving conflicts, it’s a topic I include wherever and whenever I can. Only a couple of weeks ago I was sharing the process with a student who was keen to resolve a wobbly relationship issue. She reported later that she had learnt a lot from the experience and the particular relationship issue had been resolved positively.
One of the most significant conversations I had with Walter occurred as a result of a personal conflict he was experiencing during his final month at School. He had been an outstanding Prefect that year.
One Saturday night I was walking around the Boarding House and came across an incredibly angry and frustrated Walter. I took him into my Office so we could chat away from his peers and other students.
He told me that he wanted to resign as a Prefect.
Earlier that day he had been saying farewell to one of the black kitchen Staff members who was leaving the School. Mason (not his real name) had often played football with Walter and others, so they had a healthy respect for one another. Walter was regarded by some of his peers as fraternizing with Mason and some unnecessary jibes directed at Walter had been made. He had had enough of this type of talk and no longer wished to be in a leadership role. He simply wanted to finish his final exams, leave the School and head on to University.
Walter and I spent two hours discussing life. We shared stories. We empathized with one another as best as we could. Significantly, Walter felt listened to, respected and cared for and he made a point of coming to see me during the following week to thank me for the time we had spent chatting.
Walter did not step down as a leader and I’d like to think that the discussion we had that evening gave him tools he could use in life beyond school whenever conflicts occurred within his life, in his work place and so on.
9. Encourage your mentees to make positive life choices.
The conversation Walter and I had that Saturday evening included lengthy discussion about positive life choices, the focus also on how, as individuals, we become positive person’s of influence in our communities. The mentor takes on the role of Devil’s Advocate and it is such an important role, as long as the mentee understands that this is going on. I usually tell students that I am taking on that role and, in case they don’t understand the term, I explain my role,
Walter shared his experiences with students after he had left School and made a particularly telling point: “Do away with an inferiority complex. I have heard some people say that blacks have short hair because they have short brains. They say that is the reason why some of our people have hair extensions or use hair straighteners or grow dreadlocks, so they can be clever. Well, that is not true. We are very good. We just have not had the opportunity. We must get out of that mentality that “The baas [white boss] is always right”. Your color does not determine your intelligence … You are just as good as everyone else. Do not be afraid to challenge authority, but do it the right way. Eventually they will listen to you.”
The mentor, remember, will often be speaking to the potential the mentee might not yet be seeing and that’s another reason why a mentor must NEVER QUIT! from the mentoring relationship, no matter how challenging things might be.
10. Help mentees to become self-sufficient, productive citizens.
This must be a key personal goal every mentor of an adolescent should set for himself or herself as they enter a mentoring relationship.
Have discussions about different Career pathways, what being a responsible citizen involves, the importance of managing finance; encourage creativity and entrepreneurial thinking; encourage your mentee to take non life-threatening risks and then be there for him or her if they fail while attempting something that has moved them out of their comfort zones.
By the time Walter left School he had become a self-sufficient, responsible and productive global citizen who went on to gain a Business Degree with Honors and is probably in a management position in a Company today.
These, then, are 10 possible ways youth mentoring programs can help young people living in high risk environments to become the best they can be. As a result of their experiences, many of these young people might have built a wall around themselves and will find it difficult to be vulnerable. Plenty of empathy, sensitivity, even more listening, throw in a few laughs, consistently turn up for meetings and a mentor will eventually connect with these mentees at a deeper level.
I have shared parts of Walter’s story in this Blog. I was incredibly proud when he stood in front of my School’s Assembly, shortly after he had graduated from University, and shared his experiences in an address entitled: “Brace Yourself! It’s Tough out There!”
It’s therefore appropriate that I let Walter have the final word:
“There is a Zulu saying, ‘Umuntu ngumumtu ngabantu’. This is a version of ‘No Man is an Island’. We do not have to compete against each other all the time. Do not climb on the heads of your brothers and sisters to get to the top. If you do that, you must remember that ‘the higher you are, the harder you fall’.
“All these things that I have mentioned [in this Blog!] are possible because of God. Remember that God only helps those who help themselves. You must also believe in yourself to make things happen. No-one is going to make them happen for you. As one bumper sticker read, “The only free lunch is found in a mouse trap.” Get advice from other people. Have a goal …. and, remember, the road to success is always under construction.”
About the author: Robin Cox has been a School Principal, sports coach to National Under 19 Level, Youth Symposium Organizer, developer of Youth Mentoring Programs in New Zealand and Australia, Churchill Fellow and author of books linked to youth mentoring, Peer Mentoring and the development of adolescents to become the best they can be. He has trained over 1,000 volunteer adult mentors, run workshops for teachers promoting the Spirit of Mentoring and personally mentored over 1,000 adolescents. Still an idealist, a cancer survivor of 50+ years, married with two adult children, Robin lives in Australia and shares a passion with anyone wanting to make a positive difference in the global community. You can see his short daily mentoring tips on Twitter @million2016coxy or on Facebook or on Instagram or contact him through his YES! website