Article

How mentoring can change lives

The value of giving underprivileged children relational opportunity

February 06, 2020

My 5-month-old was pulling on my necklace, on the verge of snapping it, as I wrestled to open the email on my phone. Big Brothers Big Sisters of America had found a match for me. I devoured the letter, piled with details about a 9-year-old girl named C who lived just 10 minutes away. She loved reading, had two sisters, and someday hoped to be president.

She was described as “talkative, personable, warm, respectful, competitive and respectful.” She sounded like a dream. I was still nervous the day our first meeting arrived. I wondered if interactions with her mom would be awkward or if I could carry on a relevant conversation with a pre-teen. I had very little experience with children over the age of three at this point in life. We came from very different backgrounds, and I stressed out that maybe she’d think I was trying too hard to be cool (and I probably would be.)

The unforgettable data

There was a reason, after years of thinking about it, I was finally diving into mentorship. Once you discover the statistics about how mentoring changes lives, they are impossible to forget.  At-risk youth and low-income youth who have a mentor are 55% more likely to go to college, 52% less likely to skip school, 46% less likely than peers to use drugs, 81% more likely to participate in sports and extracurricular activities, and 33% less likely to exhibit violent behavior—to name a few choice numbers. 

Many people don’t realize how hard it is for certain demographics of children to find mentors. Do just a little digging, and you’ll find that kids from economically sound families have significantly more access to informal mentors through family, educational, and professional networks than their low-income counterparts. In his critically acclaimed book, Our Kids, sociologist Robert Putnam hones in on this aptly named “opportunity gap” that exists between the two groups—and the width of that gap is astounding, not to mention, growing. 

Putnam found that while social networks of the affluent are still viable, those of the impoverished are shrinking. In past decades, poor and rich kids were likely to attend the same schools and churches, play on the same sports teams, and find one another at community social events. This is no longer the case.  Poor kids, who once had access to those with social capital and friends with helpful connections, are now insulated in ladder-less communities that limit their potential. They lose access to referrals, recommendations, introductions, and contact with those who could help with resources and recognition. The cloistered suburbs expand in tandem with shrinking cross-class relationships. Hurt the most in this exchange are the low-income children of single parents. 

Running these stats through a biblical filter, it’s easy to see that Christians are called to mentor in some way. I discovered that the Bible had plenty to say about mentoring as well. 1 Corinthians 11:1 instructs us to “be imitators of Christ” to those around us, and it’s fairly well-known what Jesus had to say about children in Matthew 18:10: "See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. Furthermore, Proverbs 14:31 says “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker.” I felt that if I didn’t step up, it was—by default—a form of oppressing those children who could benefit from what God has entrusted to me. 

As I ingested one piece of data and verse after another, I quickly ran out of excuses. On top of that, I couldn’t stop thinking about my husband, who grew up with a mentally-ill mother in poverty and abuse. He couldn’t identify a single adult, outside of one of his many temporary stepfathers, that he could trust. He couldn’t even name a teacher that was helpful—and here, I had been under the impression that everyone had a teacher like that. 

Taking personal action 

Up until this point, my support for child welfare had been through donations and online advocacy, but taking action on a personal level was the next step. Philanthropy is great, but mentorship doesn’t work without warm bodies in restaurant booths, in bowling alleys, in kitchens making cookies, doing the slow, hard work of building trust one after-school conversation at a time. 

Mentoring can take sacrificing a little personal or family time, but as Christians, we don’t have the luxury of excuses.

I was pregnant with a full-time job and a toddler. Despite fears, and limited time and space in my life, I signed up to be a mentor. I got a background check, asked people to write me recommendations (the people I may not have had if I came from an underprivileged background), and went through a two-hour interview and a two-hour training. And then I waited. 

The day I met C, she wore a dress and shiny black shoes, her hair done in perfect braids and a pair of turquoise frames brightened that “warm” and “personable” presence they’d told me about in the original email. Her mom was amazing (and still is), and I could see what an incredible job she was doing with her three girls—wanting the very best for them by keeping them involved in activities and signing them up for things like BBBS when she didn’t have the capacity to do it all on her own. 

The awkwardness I feared melted as our BBBS counselor asked a series of questions, paired C and I up to brainstorm goals and activities for the coming year, and prepared us to schedule our first outing together. When I got up to leave, C walked me to my car and gave me a hug. The counselor said he had never seen a Little do that before on the first meeting. He was impressed. I was beaming. 

It’s been 17 months now, and C and I meet regularly. I’m well-versed in the details of sixth-grade girl drama, and I’m fairly certain she knows more than me about world history, geography, and a variety of other subjects. C has introduced me to her favorite singer, the latest pre-teen fantasy novels, and the unlimited joy that comes with dreaming big (she’s working on two books and wants to be a lawyer before becoming president.)

It’s not always easy to work out my schedule and ensure I get adequate time with C. Mentoring can take sacrificing a little personal or family time, but as Christians, we don’t have the luxury of excuses. Once you see the data and hear the call, ignorance no longer applies. God may not need us, but he wants to send us out to serve in his name. He sent me 10 minutes down the road to a girl named C. Who will he send you to? 

Ericka Andersen

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer. Her first book, Leaving Cloud 9: The True Story of a Life Resurrected From the Ashes of Poverty, Trauma and Mental Illness was released by Thomas Nelson in 2018. She lives in Indianapolis, Ind., with her husband and two children. Read More