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Let’s Be Friends : Celebrating national mentoring month.

As we round out National Mentoring Month, it’s a good time to take stock of the many positive outcomes of these important relationships, maybe especially those of the peer-to-peer variety.

During my fifteen-plus years at the helm of, arguably, America’s largest youth peer-to-peer education, prevention, and activism organization, I saw firsthand the remarkable capacity young people have to create meaningful change among their friends, in their schools and communities and across the land—so much so that I decided to launch a national study on informal mentoring in order to provide much-needed data to stand beside those collected about more formal, or matched, mentoring.

What does the latter look like?

study by Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization providing social science research to those who serve children and youth found the following (Jekielek et al, 2002).

  • Youth participating in mentoring programs had fewer unexcused absences from school than did similar youth not participating in these programs.
  • Youth in mentoring programs were less likely to initiate drug use.
  • Youth who were mentored had significantly more positive attitudes toward school and the future.

Good stuff.

My study revealed similar outcomes from more informal approaches, including a higher sense of self that, in turn, tends to spawn positive identityformation, growing independence and better relationships with peers.

Teens with mentors are also significantly more likely than those without mentoring to report frequently feeling happy (94 percent versus 86 percent) and less likely to report regularly feeling depressed (24 percent versus 31 percent) or bored (66 percent versus 75 percent). They are also significantly more likely to challenge themselves by taking positive risks (Wallace, 2008).

Compelling examples of peer-to-peer mentoring can be found in the remarkable journey of Eli Waldman, a sixteen-year-old high school junior in Virginia. He shared details with me by way of email and essay.

Here’s what he had to say.

I’ve been meaning to tell you about something exciting that my friends and I have been working on. We just launched a new club at our school – it’s called the Arlington Student Amalgamation Program (ASAP). My school has a significant population of immigrant students, who are in the HILT (high intensity language training) program. They do not take classes with mainstream students and are unfortunately not integrated socially with other students. It’s been really sad and frustrating to see this, particularly in the lunchroom where no one makes efforts to include, welcome or be nice to them. So we started a club that is offering afterschool and weekend activities for these non-native English-speaking students and non-HILT students to meet and hang out and have fun with each other. Laser tag, bowling, movies – these are some of the activities we will be sponsoring.

But that’s not all.

In his essay “The Magic of Cross-Age Peer Mentoring,” Eli told me about his youth support group.

For four years, I have been mentoring elementary school children who, like me, have celiac and food allergies. When I was in eighth grade, I decided to launch two Celiac and Food Allergy Support Groups after learning that an increasing number of local children were being diagnosed with serious food allergies. I had a feeling that these kids would enjoy spending time with other kids with similar dietary and lifestyle restrictions. But I had no idea how impactful the hours we spent together would be for them. And I was skeptical that parents and school administrators would support my concept of a no-parent, no-teacher, no-adult space during our sessions. It was and remains just the kids and me. And it turns out that this is indeed the magic ingredient.

It’s like for the very first time I’m with kids who speak the same language as me.  — Nate T., 5th grade

My hunch was that kids would learn more from other kids who have the same condition than from a parent or adult who does not. I start each monthly session with a specific discussion topic, such as label reading, ordering at restaurants, surviving food in classrooms, birthday parties, play dates, summer camp and Halloween.

Our hour-long sessions begin with basic problem solving. How do you politely decline the homemade brownies that a friend’s parents insist are allergen-free yet you suspect are contaminated? While questioning adults, particularly the parent of a friend, is relatively easy for older teens, it feels disrespectful and wrong to most children. This is where role-playing becomes a useful and fun tool to get them engaged, even the shyest among them. A typical scenario involves me playing the kid and a kid playing the adult role. I start by displaying the absolute most outrageously rude behavior a kid could have. This invariably elicits laughter from the kids and shouts of “No, no, no – that’s not a good way to communicate.” We then switch roles and they propose more appropriate ways to decline. And, voilà, we have kid-driven, practical, realistic solutions. We have confidence, support, camaraderie, fun and laughs.

Trust is the most important factor in our group. It makes me feel safe and comfortable. I feel so much better talking to other kids about food allergies because they know exactly what it is like and how it affects me. – Nicholas S., 4th grade

Regardless of the topic we discuss, my overarching goal is to empower the kids with the tools and confidence to advocate for themselves in their classrooms and communities. The beauty of cross-age peer mentoring is that it sends children the message that they have the ability to help each other and don’t need to always rely on parents or teachers. The answers, the instincts, the ability – all are within them. Nothing is more empowering and gratifying than being able to offer advice on how to navigate the lunchroom or order at a restaurant. They learn how to listen to each other and discuss sensitive feelings.

These children are also learning how to become leaders. Before you can advocate for others or a cause, you need to know how to advocate for yourself. These kids are learning the importance of putting their own healthfirst and of not succumbing to pressure to try a food that they aren’t confident is safe. Learning to be comfortable saying no to certain foods at a young age will better prepare them as teens to say no to drugs and alcoholand to resist peer pressure.

Each session, I can count on at least one kid coming out of his/her shell. Suddenly, even the kids who are naturally hesitant to participate light up when one of their peers describes a recent challenge and then offers suggestions and helpful advice. The third-grade girl, who for months has been wordlessly nodding in agreement, shares her own unique coping strategy for eating safely at a friend’s birthday party. There is a palpable surge of energy in the room as animated kids excitedly offer advice on how to manage situations like these. Smiles, laughter, sighs, and high fives – this is work in progress.

These are the moments when I sit back, observe, and experience a sense of triumph like no other. This is what happens when you give kids the space to feel safe and in control.

Confidence, support, camaraderie, fun, and laughs, indeed. Eli’s work brings to life the “power of presence” (Hall, 2005), something certainly worth celebrating—and better yet, emulating.

So, as National Mentoring Month comes to a close, let’s be friends!

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