Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance Executive Director Kathy Witkowicki with her long-time mentee, Jackie. (Photo by Tina Baldry)

I’m often asked what defines a successful mentoring program for at-risk youth, and my reply usually begins with a caution: Mentoring is not puppy-petting.

That may seem like a provocative comment, but I find it quickly leads the discussion to the central issue defining program success—mentor commitment. Adults who volunteer to mentor an at-risk boy or girl can make a real difference only if they are prepared to create an enduring relationship. While the emotional rewards of mentoring are profound, the truth is that satisfaction rarely comes quickly or easily.

The Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance has become a leader in the field of one-on-one mentoring over the past 16 years, in large part because we are not reluctant to ask volunteers to step-up and “mentor for life.” Yes, it’s a daunting request, but it’s a great way to find those individuals who can make the biggest difference.

I also think it’s a reminder for nonprofits—do not be afraid to ask for long-term commitment up front, especially when volunteers, like our mentors, are integral to the organization’s mission. You may get fewer volunteers, but you will likely get better ones.

While some mentoring programs with short-term models are successful, recent studies such as “The Test of Time in School-Based Mentoring,” published by The American Journal of Community Psychology (April 2011), cite time as the secret sauce of effective mentoring—the longer the match, the better the outcomes. The study also showed that brief mentoring relationships that end prematurely can do more harm than if that child was never matched in the first place. Clearly, the stakes are high.

Over the years, we’ve designed a program to attract mentors prepared to “stay the course.” We have been successful at weeding out the indecisive, uncommitted volunteers up front, and attracting only those who are willing to put forth the effort to enhance the life of an at-risk child for the long haul. We believe it’s what these kids deserve.

As a result, we are seeing better outcomes. Among recent high school seniors in our program, eight out of ten have had the support of the same mentor for at least six years, and half for eight years or more. This compares with a national average of six to twelve months for most school-based mentoring programs, and two years for community-based programs. Our program comprises both models.

Most important, our mentees, who were referred to us because they were at a higher risk of dropping out, are graduating in numbers equal to their peers, and are moving on to college at a comparable rate.

On an anecdotal level, we find that many of those mentees continue to maintain a relationship with their mentors during college or as they begin their career.

It took us many years to get to this point. A critical factor in doing so was identifying and creating the wrap-around services that keep mentors feeling engaged and supported, including:

  • A careful initial screening to match mentors with a child who has a compatible personality and interests.
  • An orientation that discusses the challenges, as well as the joys, of mentoring. This conversation is continued through ongoing training workshops and educational forums.
  • Support for mentors and mentees both academically and socially. We operate on eight local, public school, K-12 campuses where we maintain fully staffed and equipped Mentor Centers. We also offer field trips and enrichment activities after school and on the weekend in response to mentor requests for suggestions on what to do with their mentees outside of school.
  • Counseling and support groups to assist mentors struggling with a variety of issues involving their mentees.
  • Events each year at which mentors and their families socialize with the mentees and their families. We find these gatherings help build trust between the mentors and the parents.

Maria is one of our program participants, and her story is a great example of what we are trying to achieve. She came to us in the fourth grade. She was referred by her teacher, who saw a little girl with no time for homework or socializing because of her family responsibilities. When the school bell rang at the end of each day, Maria’s job was to care for her three younger siblings while her single mother went to work. Maria’s mentor, Susan, helped her academically and worked with her to develop personal interests. Today, Maria is in her second year of college, with Susan still at her side.

We realize the world is not perfect; our “mentoring for life” mantra is a goal and not a promise. The reality is that some wonderful mentors will need to leave their mentees after a short relationship for very understandable reasons. But by articulating this vision early and clearly, we raise the bar regarding expectations and thus attract the best volunteers from our community.

When mentors can bring a deep sense of commitment and enthusiasm to the program, and are given the support they need, you see relationships like Maria and Susan’s flourish and endure, hopefully for a lifetime.