By Aliya Bhatia
Last Monday after volunteering at the King Center, I found myself wandering around its exhibits. A few of the pieces reminded me of one of my former students, Brianna, whose artwork ranges from paintings of the four girls killed in the Birmingham Church Bombing to self-portraits interrogating what it means that her skin is lighter than that of her parents and her friends. There must have been a little telepathy in the works, because I soon received a long string of texts from Brianna about her new job. I found a quieter hallway and gave her a call, and we caught up about everything from work to hobbies to her ideas of how to narrate black history through ballet.
I taught Brianna 11th grade math a number of years ago. Of my many students, I kept most closely in touch with just a few – sometimes they mentor me and sometimes I mentor them. On occasion, I get to experience huge milestones in their lives, such as when I visited Brianna during her graduation from the University of Michigan last summer.
When I joined Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta, I came in with this more colloquial notion of mentorship. I am fortunate to have many mentors who have given me invaluable skills and experiences, and I wanted more children in Atlanta to have this same resource.
I soon realized that in the context of a formal mentoring program like Big Brothers Big Sisters, there are a couple important distinctions. These differences come from countless studies on mentoring programs, volunteering, and youth development. We apply these concepts to our work of matching “Bigs” or mentors with “Littles” or mentees. Drawn from the National Mentoring Partnership’s Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring, these aspects of our program are markers of quality in the mentorship space and associated with mentorship’s positive outcomes:
- Training volunteer mentors is critical: I was trained as a teacher, which later precipitated my friendship with Brianna. It is similarly essential for volunteer mentors to receive training on working with young people, on child safety, and on building strong relationships with the child and family. Volunteers interested in Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Community-Based program spend four hours in various forms of training to prepare for their match. Our training provides clear definitions of what a mentor is and isn’t and looks at common situations that Bigs may face when working with Littles who face poverty or other types of adversity. Our training also addresses child safety – in order to do good for our Littles, first our Bigs must do no harm.
- The match should be strong enough to last at least a year: Brianna and I had a full school year to get to know one another – and, Brianna was nearly an adult, allowing her to have some say in our lasting friendship beyond the school year. We have now been in touch over 7 years. The research shows that mentoring relationships that last less than a year can do more harm than good to a child. To help ensure long-lasting matches, we try to match Bigs and Littles who live near one another and we also involve the parent in the process of choosing our Bigs. While this means that not every volunteer who walks through our door will get matched, it also helps us ensure that the Big, Little, and family will click in a way that sustains their relationship and trust from the start. While we partner closely with both Littles and Bigs, our program exists to support kids facing adversity, and we should put our Littles first in every decision we make.
- Ongoing support improves outcomes: While Brianna and I have kept up on our own, I have sometimes wondered whether the advice I have given was the right advice at the right time. Fortunately, our Bigs in our program have a resource to turn to in order to navigate their journey with their Little – a Match Support Specialist who supports their relationship on a monthly or quarterly basis. The research shows ongoing support leads matches to meet more frequently and that suggestions of low-cost, age-appropriate events help matches to last longer. Furthermore, we know that an abrupt and unexplained end to a mentoring relationship can lead a child to believe that an adult has given up on them and is walking out of their life – and the child may even blame themselves for what they may feel is their own failure. Big Brothers Big Sisters’ practice of facilitating a match from start to finish ensures that the closure of that match is done thoughtfully without harming the child’s self-esteem.
These are just a few of many research-driven best practices that ground the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and other quality mentorship efforts. While the space must continue to innovate and experiment, it should also be built on the bedrock of our existing knowledge of youth development and safety, much of which is already established.
A few weeks ago, I attended a joint MENTOR and Big Brothers Big Sisters career panel and met Abigail and Tracy. They have been matched with Big Brothers Big Sisters for over 10 years. As a result of their close and sustained friendship, Tracy is teaching Abigail yoga – a practice I personally did not get a chance to experience until my late 20s. Their presence at the event also shows how Tracy was focused on supporting Abigail in her college and career ambitions. Their friendship is a demonstration of how the various pillars of effective mentorship can create relationships that change a child’s life for the better, forever.
As for Brianna, I will continue to ride her coattails as she brings her combined creative brain and business sensibilities to her work. I am fortunate to have so many incredible and diverse friendships in my life and am lucky that my full-time job is to extend that joy to families and mentors across our metro region.