Good News for Voluntary and Paid Youth Workers: Mentoring Works!

Bill Howard
January 1, 1996

-PHILADELPHIA

Voluntary youth workers are being offered fresh proof that all the hours they spend as Big Brothers and Big Sisters to young people who are missing a parent can truly change lives.

A first-of-a-kind controlled study performed by Philadelphia-based Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) shows that middle school-age boys and girls who meet regularly with a "Big" are much less likely to become involved with drugs and alcohol. They also do better in school and have better relationships with their parents and peers than do non-mentored youth.

These supportive findings are being hailed by Marian L. Heard of Boston, head of United Way in New England, as "dramatic evidence" that the structured kind of mentoring developed by Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America over the last 91 years works. "We hope this will give mentoring a big shot in the arm," she said.

Heard, a mentor herself of a young woman, is spokesperson for One to One, a Washington, D.C.-based agency founded during the Bush Administration to promote mentoring. Back then, there were expectations of enlisting one million volunteers to be paired with at-risk youth — a goal never attained. Currently, One to One estimates there are 300,000 active mentors in the nation including the 75,000 with BB/BG, which also is headquartered in Philadelphia.

P/PV President Gary Walker who oversaw the three-year, $2 million BB/BS study said the results were "real good news" because they confirm some of the "original enthusiasm that these artificially engineered relationships can produce good things for kids." On the other hand, he said, "the sobering implication the report will have for the mentoring movement is — it's got to be done right to get those results." That means, he said, adhering to the BB/BS model, which requires thorough screening and training of volunteers, careful matching of adults with boys and girls and extensive supervision of the entire process by youth workers (see page 26).

During President Bush's tenure, administration enthusiasts championed volunteer mentors as a cheap answer to helping disadvantaged and troubled young people. But P/PV’s study found that to pursue the BB/BS one-to-one approach costs about $1,000 per match. If applied to all 14 million or so children estimated to be living at risk in father-less homes, the price tag would be a hefty $14 billion — hardly cheap by conservative Republican standards, even in the unlikely event that 14 million mentors could be found and trained.

Walker said interest has been subsiding in the movement because agencies haven't been able to approach the one million mentor goal. In addition, until now, valid scientific evidence that mentoring works — information that might have convinced more people to volunteer has been lacking. Most volunteers in the study were college-educated business professionals in their 30s.

Answer to Youth Crime?

Publication of Making a Difference: An Impact Study of Big Brothers/Big Sisters by P/PV could help revive public interest in volunteering and prompt a second look at the cost-effectiveness of mentoring. The report says that Little Brothers and Sisters who met regularly with their "Bigs" for about a year were:

  • 46 percent less likely than their peers to start using illegal drugs (minority "Littles" were 70 percent less likely to start using drugs): 27 percent less likely to start drinking.
  • 52 percent less likely to skip a day in school than their peers and 37 percent less likely to skip a class.

    They also were more trusting of their parents or guardians, less likely to lie to them, and felt more supported and less criticized by their peers and friends.

    If translated to millions of at-risk children, the findings suggest mentoring could be instrumental in radically reducing juvenile crime and drug use as well as vastly improving school attendance. Is that now more likely to happen? Not anytime soon, says Walker. "I've gotten too old to look for any immediate results. But I think eventually our findings will soak in."

    The study compared 959 boys and girls who applied to BB/BS programs in Phoenix, Ariz.; Wichita, Kan.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Rochester, N.Y.; Columbus, Ohio; Philadelphia, Penn.; and Houston and San Antonio, Tex. Half the applicants were randomly assigned to the "treatment" group and eligible to receive a mentor right away, and the other half were required to wait 18 months — a normal waiting period until matched with a "Big."

    Most of the youth were between 10 and 14, nearly 60 percent were members of a minority group, and more than 60 percent were boys. Nearly all were poor or almost poor, and many lived in families with histories of substance abuse and/or domestic violence.

    Big Brothers and Big Sisters met with their "Littles" over a period of, on average, one year. More than 70 percent met them at least three times a month for more than three hours. Nearly half met once a week.

    Interestingly, the study said the primary goal of most mentors was developmental — to establish themselves as a "stable, supportive friend" and to provide the youth with opportunities to engage in enjoyable activities they otherwise would not be able to access. Having fun took precedence over concerns about behavior and school performance until a relationship jelled.

    About one-third of the relationships were classified as "prescriptive" in nature, with the volunteers pushing "good for you" activities — without considering the youth's preferences — in seeking right off to change a youth's behavior quickly. But the study did not determine which approach had the most impact on youth.

    “The hypothesis would be that in those developmental relationships there was greater progress," commented BB/ BS National Executive Director Thomas M. McKenna. "But we don't know. All they could show was that it was a closer relationship and seemed more satisfactory to the kids and to the Bigs."

    The study was underwritten by grants from the Lilly Endowment, the Commonwealth Fund, the Pew Charitable Trusts and an anonymous donor.

    "Tricky" Search for Mentors

    For the past several years, P/PV has been studying various types of mentoring programs. Walker said BB/BS was the "first where the relationships between adults and youth lasted long enough and in large enough numbers for us to measure their impacts."

    By contrast, in the early '90s P/PV examined a program called Campus Compact, which put together college students from 10 institutions with middle school children. Like a lot of other purported mentoring programs, he said, Campus Compact lacked administrative support and structure. "They really didn't have anybody to direct the program.

    "Consequently, they'd get some volunteers to meet with middle school kids but with none of the kinds of matching, screening or talking with the college kids to see what their interests were — none of the kind of ongoing supervision of the program (as in Big Brothers/Big Sisters). College kids do things on weekends — go home, take vacations, just leave. The middle school kids were turned off, saying it would be nice to do things with a college kid but they didn't see him very much. The college kids would break appointments and it was their fault. But it also was the lack of supervision and laying down of rules on meeting with the school kids regularly. Some of the relationships were okay but a much higher percentage of them just disintegrated."

    The $1,000 per match price tag is regarded as a prime barrier to greatly extending one-to-one mentoring. Accordingly, BB/BS’s Tom McKenna is urging the more than 500 BB/BS affiliates across the country to collaborate with other agencies in their communities in seeking out group settings like schools to reach many more children. "The tricky thing is how do you take what's been learned in this study and help it get into many different forms without compromising some of the basic stuff that’s been learned through the years about how to do the program right," he told YOUTH TODAY.

    One form being promoted by BB/BS is the school-based model — bringing mentors from the business world into classrooms and also using them to connect kids with the world of work back in their offices. "It already is working quite well in several places," McKenna said.

    "In Trenton, New Jersey, for example, lots of folks from corporations are going into the schools in one of the most disadvantaged areas of the city and they get involved in being not only mentors to the kids but get a sense of what's happening in the schools and get involved trying to do something about it. They work through BB/BS."

    BB/BS has recently taken over the conclusion of IBM Corporation's once highly publicized Aristotle 2000 program, which matched its employees in various New York, New Jersey and Connecticut communities with 140 disadvantaged students as they were entering high school four years ago. The program was hurt when several of the mentors were laid off by IBM in the past two years and BB/BS had to find replacements.

    "We also have programs that work with the handicapped, like getting hearing impaired Bigs to work with kids who are hearing impaired," McKenna said. "And there are a lot of organizations out there that we collaborate with like Cities in Schools that we probably could do more with." He estimates a total of about 25,000 children are in these groups and special programs, bringing the total served by BB/BS to 100,000.

    Boys & Girls Clubs Roles?

    P/PV's Walker said there are two routes for youth-serving agencies to capitalize on the study's findings: set up their own mentoring programs or find ways of intensifying the number of adult relationships with young people in existing programs. Presently, P/PV is in the basic research stage of learning how ordinary youth development agencies might enhance their mentoring capabilities.

    "We're now taking a systematic look at five Boys & Girls Clubs, five YMCAs and five Girls, Inc., chapters in different locations around the country to see what they actually do with kids. We're asking: What kind of kids actually come in? Do they come in one hour a week because they want to play on the basketball court? Do they increase their activities? Do they really get to know a particular adult in those settings that they have a relationship with? Do those agencies aim to have a particular adult get to know each kid?

    "If you are a Boys & Girls Club, for example, you are not a mentoring agency; you're probably not going to set up a separate mentoring program. But, given what you do and what we found out in the BB/BS study, what can you do within your own practices to maximize the kind of intensity of relationships between adults in your agencies and kids? Can you bring in other adults as part of your basketball program with the intent of linking them up? We're trying to articulate what those possibilities are and see if they can be done."

    As for schools, he said, "I wouldn't say they should try to run a Big Sisters-type program. But if we know adult relationships are that important, when schools go about the business of so-called reforming themselves, maybe one of the key bottom lines should be whether a given reform does increase the intensity of adult-youth relationships that are formed between teachers and other school personnel and the students. Any reform process that doesn't do that is not maximizing what we've learned here — particularly at the middle school level."

    "I would think each youth-serving institution would have a different way of taking these findings and giving them some usefulness."

    To BB/BS's McKenna one of the study's most important observations was how the now-proven effectiveness of mentoring might influence public policy regarding drugs, violence and schooling. He thinks it may help boost a social policy approach for youth that "focuses less on specific problems after they occur, and more on meeting youth's most basic developmental needs." Quoting from the report.

    "To me, that is of real key interest to the pending Youth Development Block Grant. It says you can have an impact on these so-called hard issues: the use of drugs, school performance, etc., without necessarily developing a specific program to deal with them. In fact, when you deal with them narrowly in a specific program it is often too little and too late — the old fragmented deficit model.

    "So there's a message in this study that goes way beyond mentoring, I think, to the importance of the positive youth development approach."

    To pursue that objective, McKenna added, "I'm interested in getting the Bigs involved in advocacy for positive youth development — to see themselves as agents to help bring about better conditions for their kids. What makes Bigs so authentic as advocates is that they aren't paid functionaries.

    "I want to get them thinking about why Johnny isn't doing well in school and how that ties back to public policy. Then we would begin to have an educated, influential force for a public policy that could be very creative and informed."


    Howard, Bill. "Good News for Voluntary and Paid Youth Workers: Mentoring Works!" Youth Today, January/February 1996, p. 24-26.

    ©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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