The number of Americans willing to serve as volunteer mentors has remained remarkably stable over the past decade — between 2 million and 2.5 million, or around 1% of the adult population (Raposa et al., 2016). If we assume that some of this is group mentoring, we can roughly estimate that about 3.5 million (7%) of the 45.7 million American youth between the ages of 6 and 17 receive volunteer mentoring each year. Even if this percentage somehow doubled, we’d still be around 2% of adults.
These trends have interesting implications. First, we should continue to identify training and support practices that could help to build and maintain a committed base of volunteer mentors, who are well equipped to handle the needs of youth exposed to increasingly high levels of stress. In addition, however, we must explore avenues for supporting youth in building healthy social networks with the caring adults in their everyday lives. Youth who can identify at least one supportive adult within their social networks have been shown to have better outcomes across a range of important academic, behavioral, and health domains.
Fortunately, natural mentoring relationships are relatively common. Indeed, about 75% of youth say they have a mentor. On the face of it, this high percentage seems to suggest that young people are perfectly adept at enlisting support from non-parental adults. Yet, with classroom overcrowding, class-based segregation, and diminishing public support for extracurricular programs and enrichment activities, opportunities for extended interaction between youth and caring adults have diminished, and it is the youth in the bottom income sectors who suffer the most. While wealthier families have been able to compensate for these changes with private sources of support and enrichment, poorer families have fewer resources to invest. Although they often stand to gain the most, youth from the lowest SES quartile are least likely to endorse having a natural mentor. This unequal distribution of natural mentoring relationships serves to compound socioeconomic disadvantage. Moreover, whereas richer kids are more apt to find teachers and coaches to serve as their mentors, poorer youth generally turn to the members of their extended family or neighbors. These “close ties,” while often vitally important, are typically less able to connect youth to educational and occupational opportunities. Consequently, they are less likely to see such adults as role models, and less likely to discuss issues around their identity and future (Raposa, Erickson, Hagler, & Rhodes, 2017).
If we are serious about redressing social inequality, we need to do more to connect low-income youth with a range of caring adults who can help them invent and achieve a promising future. Mentoring initiatives should be broadened to scaffold young people’s ability to recruit caring adults, and new approaches are showing promise. In the Youth-Initiated Mentoring (YIM) approach, youth nominate adults to serve as their mentors, selecting from among the adults who are already in their social networks (Schwartz et al., 2013). In an extension of this approach, typically used with high school and college students, the Connected Scholars Program actively supports students in cultivating a network of supportive adults, rather than a single mentoring relationship (Schwartz, et al., 2015). Likewise, Intentional Mentoring (IM) approaches seek to increase the availability of caring adults who serve as mentors. If the first three approaches “teach youth to fish,” this strategy could be viewed as “stocking the pond.” Adults in neighborhoods, schools, after-school programs, summer camps, competitive sports teams, and even online interest groups are often afforded ongoing opportunities to engage youth in the sorts of informal conversations and activities that can give rise to close bonds. Many youth actually prefer and benefit from the group context in which caring adults are available but not necessarily assigned to them individually. Yet, in the absence of an intentional approach in which programs prioritize such relationships, and youth workers leverage their influence during the occasional “mentoring moments,” the potential of adults to forge meaningful connections with youth has not been fully realized (Ching, Santo, Hoadley, & Peppler, 2015). Websites like Everyday Mentor have been developed to provide caring adults with evidence-based approaches to working with young people in various situations.