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Forty-five percent of all U.S. children live in low-incomes families, according to the National Center for Children Living in Poverty.1 Numerous studies have proven that the youth from these families are more likely than their peers from middle- and high-income families to engage in risky behavior, including having sex before age 16, joining a gang, attacking someone or getting into a fight, stealing something worth more than $50, and running away.2

In addition, almost a third of youth from low-income families don't complete high school, reports the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.2 Lacking the resources and opportunities to better their lives, these youth often wind up in dead-end jobs and live a life of crime and poverty.

Mentorship can help graduate youth and remedy these toxic circumstances. If you're a nonprofit organization interested in creating a mentorship program for disadvantaged youth in your community, we applaud you. Mentored youth have better school attendance, are more likely to enroll in post-secondary college and have better attitudes about school in general, according to the 2013 study "The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles."3 Mentored youth experience lower levels of depression than their nonmentored counterparts. They communicate with and trust their parents more, enjoy more fulfilling social lives, and develop deeper emotional bonds.

Mentoring works, but setting up a successful program is no easy feat. Let's examine what a mentor does and how your nonprofit can create a successful mentorship program.

What Does a Mentor Do?

At the most basic level, a mentor simply cares about the youth in his or her charge. Mentors let these young people know that someone cares about them and their lives. Mentors help their mentees make good decisions about their current situation and for the future.

More specifically, mentors:

     - Encourage teens to stay in school, assist with homework and help cultivate academic skills. Youth who meet with their mentors regularly are 52 percent less likely than their peers to skip a day of school and 37 percent less likely to skip a class, according to a Public/Private Ventures study of Big Brothers Big Sisters.4

     - Give youth a safe and supervised environment to spend their free time. Young people learn how to communicate with and relate to all types of people. The Big Brothers Big Sisters study also found that young people who meet regularly with their mentors are 46 percent less likely than their peers to start using illegal drugs and 27 percent less likely to start drinking.

     - Help youth set career goals and provide guidance on how to realize them. Goal setting and career guidance may include helping these young people apply to college, find internships and/or look for and keep a job.

How Does an Organization Get Started?

Forming a successful mentorship program is a detailed process. Youth must feel comfortable and safe opening up to their mentors, and mentors need ongoing support and training to best serve their charges.

Here are the steps to take to ensure this is the case:

  1. Start recruiting mentors. Depending on your nonprofit's structure and available budget, hire trained counselors or enlist the help of volunteers. Look for people who reflect the diversity of your community and express commitment to your mission. Seek out parents, community members, clergy, doctors, foundation representatives, corporate leaders, financial experts and philanthropists. Excellent communication and listening skills are essential. Previous experience with youth is desirable, but not mandatory.

  2. Develop an orientation program. Designate a program coordinator to build the orientation program. Mentoring.org5 suggests this orientation highlight:

    1. The mentorship program's mission and expectations

    2. Staff roles vs. volunteer roles

    3. How to interact with mentees and their parents or caregivers, school administrators and corporate liaisons

  3. Access training and assistance services. Determine the local, state, and national training and assistance resources. "How to Build a Successful Mentoring Program Using the Elements of Effective Practice" by offers a comprehensive guide for how to access the resources available to you, as well as sample job descriptions and marketing plans.5

What Should Our Mentors Focus On?

About 8.5 million young people do not have a caring adult in their lives, according to These young individuals are at increased risk of academic failure and violent behavior. Research has also found that youth from disadvantaged backgrounds who successfully transition into adulthood and good citizenship consistently had a caring adult in their lives.

To help their mentees eliminate risk in their lives and future, mentors should focus on:

  1. Conflict Resolution. Juvenile delinquency and violence are symptoms of youth's inability to manage conflict in their lives. Teach creative problem-solving skills to help youth express their points of view and find mutually acceptable solutions. Reinforce that while conflict is natural, people can learn ways to deal with it in appropriate, nonviolent ways. According to the U.S. Department of Education, when young people practice conflict resolution principles and skills on a regular basis, they experience greater satisfaction in their lives.7

  2. High School Completion. Emphasize the importance of a high school diploma. A high school noncompleter will earn $200,000 less than a high school graduate over a lifetime and almost a million dollars less than a college graduate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.8 If the mentee has already left school, locate a high school completion program in your community and encourage him or her to enroll. A high school completion program is designed for the unique needs of the nontraditional learner and sets re-engaging students up for success.

  3. Post-Secondary Education & Career Training. High school completion graduates not only reach an educational milestone, but they become excellent students for post-secondary college. Provide graduates with the ongoing support to smoothly transition into career-oriented higher education and graduate. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an organization dedicated to ensuring the opportunity to receive a high-quality education is available to all students, calls a college education the gateway to the American middle class. Unfortunately, more than 40 percent of college students drop out permanently or withdraw temporarily. Help these career college students reach the finish line by developing a clear career path centered around short-term and long-term academic and professional goals.9

Countless research supports how the presence of a caring adult or role model in the lives of disadvantaged youth can help reduce high school dropout rates, as well as risky and violent behavior. Mentored youth go on to succeed in post-secondary education, find employment in fulfilling careers and lead lives of opportunity. By developing a mentorship program that fosters strong relationships between the mentor and mentee, your organization can play a significant hand in changing the lives of these youth. It may not always be easy, but it will always be worth it.

What experience do you have with mentor programs for disadvantaged youth? Share your stories with me in the comment section below.

Resources:  (1) Basic Facts About Low-Income Children (2) Youth from Low-Income Families (3) (4) Big Impact- Proven Results Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (5) Strengthening Mentoring Opportunities for At-Risk Youth (6) Conflict Resolution (7) The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings (8) Postsecondary Success Strategy Overview