At the National Mentoring Summit last week in Washington D.C., there was lots of talk about closing the "mentoring gap" — finding enough mentors to serve all the nation's young people who need one. There were sessions on recruiting more men, more people of color, more college students and more people from disadvantaged backgrounds, all very much needed.
I didn't hear much about recruiting boomer mentors, though. There were no sessions devoted to encouraging or supporting people in their 50s and 60s to assist youth. When I asked session leaders how they attract older volunteers, I got the sense that this wasn't a problem that keeps program managers up at night. Diane Quest, senior director for public affairs for the National Mentoring Partnership, said "the 50 and older demographic is historically easier to recruit."
Even so, I'd like to sound the call to urge more boomers to mentor kids.
Here's why: According to a 2013 study sponsored by the MENTOR:The National Mentoring Partnership which hosted the summit, one in three young people grow up without an adult mentor.
Boomers Make Great Mentors
When we think of youth mentors — especially those in programs like Big Brother, Big Sister or My Brother’s Keeper — we typically picture a 20- or 30-something playing squash with a teenager or attending a concert together. This is what the brochures show, and maybe it is easier for a 15-year-old to relate to someone who's 24 rather than someone who's 54.
But even if boomers can’t (or don't want to) play sweaty, knee-wrenching weekly squash games with middle-schoolers, they do have a lot to offer and could do a lot to help close the mentoring gap.
Encore.org founder Marc Freedman and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner wrote eloquently about this mentoring disconnect and opportunity not long ago for The Huffington Post. In their essay, they propose launching a "Boomer Corps" to "channel the vast talents and experience of the 'gray tsunami' where they are most needed — early childhood programs, school classrooms and school-to-work transitions initiatives."
Two Mentoring Groups with a Boomer Focus
Although they weren't in the spotlight at the summit, two groups with a strong track record of placing and supporting 50+ mentors were on hand: AARP’s Experience Corps and Senior Corps, a program of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which also helps fund Experience Corps.
You might want to devote some time volunteering with one of them.
Experience Corps places volunteers 50 and older in schools as reading tutors for children in grades K-3. The program pioneered by Freedman and adopted by AARP in 2011, now operates in 22 cities, serving more than 27,000 students with 1,700 volunteers.
And its efforts pay off. As Nancy Collamer wrote in Next Avenue last year, "A striking 93 percent of teachers surveyed said their students’ reading and literary performance improved under the guidance of AARP Experience Corps tutors.”
"Teachers love having another caring adult in the classroom,” said Kathleen Brennan, an AARP research and evaluation adviser who works with Experience Corps.
Libra Riley Johnson, an AARP education strategy advisor who joined Brennan at the summit said the mentors they work with are at a place in their lives where they “want to do something else and have an impact on their communities.”
Brennan and Johnson said their program is as vital for the mentors as it is for the students — connecting them to their communities through meaningful work and combating the isolation that sometimes comes with age and retirement. And, they said, the mentors are often truly invested in the program. Not content to come and go for their volunteer days, they typically want to know how their students are doing in school and how else they can help.
Matching Passion with Purpose
Senior Corps, a branch of the federal AmeriCorps, had a table and staff at the conference, offering opportunities for those 55 and older who want to work with young people or help their communities in other ways. Its RSVP program places more than 296,000 people who tutor children, teach English to immigrants, help victims of natural disasters and manage other volunteers.
Senior Corps' smaller Foster Grandparent Program, with 28,000 volunteers (you needn't be an actual grandparent to participate), matches mentors with special-needs families through existing community programs to help with schoolwork, parenting and care. Volunteers work between 15 and 40 hours a week and are encouraged to form long-term, caring relationships with the families they serve.
“We know (that people) in the second half of life have a tremendous wealth of skills to offer. They’ve lived — they are well suited for mentoring-type roles," said Samantha Warfield, CNCS press secretary.
Although the minimum age for Senior Corps volunteers is 55, Warfield says that other AmeriCorps programs welcome adults of all ages and that the agency is seeing an increase in older participants. "If you have a passion we can definitely find you a purpose, ” she said.
7 Questions to Ask Before Signing Up
If you'll be searching for an appropriate mentoring program, ask these questions:
1. What is the time commitment?
2. How flexible is the program if I work full-time or travel a lot?
3. How will I be matched with the person I am mentoring and what happens if it is not a good fit?
4. What type of training and support does the program offer?
5. Will I be working on my own or are there opportunities to work with, or meet, other mentors for support and social events?
6. Is the program a good match for my health?
7. What is the process for vetting mentors?
In addition to the Senior Corps and Experience Corps sites, you can find boomer-friendly mentoring opportunities and programs through the National Mentoring Partnership, All For Good and VolunteerMatch.
Alternatives to signing up for a one-on-one relationship with a child or teen: Help run a mentoring program, donate to mentoring projects or simply try to be the person in your neighborhood kids turn to when they need advice or encouragement.