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by Susan V. Bosak
Legacy Project

Children need 4-6 involved caring adults in their life

In The Ways of My Grandmothers, Beverly Hungry Wolf writes, "In the years since I began following the ways of my grandmothers I have come to value the teachings, stories, and daily examples of living which they shared with me. I pity the younger girls of the future who will miss out on meeting some of these fine women."

In many ways, mentoring has its roots in grandparenting. Grandparents, having reached a certain stage in their life, often have a strong need to create a lasting legacy. This can take shape in serving as mentors, role models, teachers, and family historians to their grandchildren. But intergenerational mentoring need not be traditional or biological. Many children don't have actively involved, biological grandparents in their lives. These children still need an opportunity to connect with older adults. Research shows children need 4-6 involved, caring adults in their life to fully develop emotionally and socially. One of the challenges today is that children receive too much peer socialization and not enough contact with mature adults.

The award-winning bestseller Dream is narrated by a wise old star who takes the reader on a colorful journey through a lifetime. The wise old star serves as a mentor figure. At the end of the story, the star has passed on all its wisdom and it is up to the reader to move forward on their own and reach for their dreams – with the wise old star in place in the sky as a reassuring presence. A good mentoring relationship is very much like that, and many mentoring programs use the Dream book as inspiration and introduction for both young and old, and a talking tool to help young people think about their life ahead of them and their own goals.

Intergenerational mentoring can take the form of an older person informally becoming a "grandfriend" to a young person. Or it may occur as part of a more formal, structured intergenerational program. There is a valid distinction to be made between older adults simply volunteering in various capacities, engaging in a long-term mentoring relationship, and participating in an intergenerational program. But I would argue that most intergenerational contact is, at one level or another, a form of mentoring. Said one student who was being tutored in school by an older adult volunteer, "I figured that she was just going to be a tutor, but she turned out to be more like a friend. Being with her was like getting practice being an adult."

Why Intergenerational Mentoring
is Important

Intergenerational contact isn't just "nice." It is essential. Intergenerational contact enables young and old to learn from, enjoy, and assist each other. It can help to overcome the social isolation of both generations, and lay the foundation to address some very real problems facing individuals, families, and communities.

An ever-increasing number of children are growing up with little hope of enjoying the benefits that come with adulthood. They aren't learning the social skills they need, gaining the knowledge they should from the education system, or learning how to make the transition into the labor force. They don't know how to be responsible parents themselves because they've had limited experience in family life and lack the resources to raise their own children. Too many young people have few opportunities to engage in a close relationship with a caring adult. Classrooms are full of students struggling to cope with the effects of living in poverty, with language barriers and special needs, with the temptation to abuse drugs or alcohol, and in danger of violence at home and in the streets. Young people need someone with whom they can feel emotionally safe, and a mentor is often just that person.

A mentor can be the difference that makes a difference to a child. Said one teacher involved in an intergenerational mentoring program, "I don't have scientific proof that older persons make a difference in the students' academic performance. And yet... on the days that older adults come in, students don't miss class and they are more focused." Commented a parent whose child was involved in an intergenerational program, "Thanks to the seniors, my child is more respectful and listens more."

One research group looked at cumulative data from senior volunteer programs in schools over a seven year period. The teachers reported gains by students working with older adults: 93% of teachers said students experienced social growth; 87% reported gains in academic performance; 96% said students developed a more positive attitude toward older adults. Emmy Werner, a developmental psychologist, followed 500 Hawaiian children growing up in poverty on Kauai. Examining their lives over a 30-year period from birth to adulthood, Werner found that the youth who managed to make it, against all the odds, all could count on the support of a caring adult other than their parents. Anthropologists William Kornblum and Terry Williams followed 900 children in urban and rural poverty across the US, concluding that "the most significant factor" determining whether teenagers would end up on the corner or in a stable job was "the presence or absence of adult mentors."

Children need adults in their lives. And older adults need children, too. Recent findings from the MacArthur Foundation study on successful aging have indicated the two conditions most closely tied to prolonged physical and mental well-being in later life are productive engagement and strong social networks. When older adults volunteer in schools and youth programs, they achieve both these goals. They develop friendships with students, staff, and other volunteers; they feel useful and socially validated; they feel challenged; they experience increased self-esteem and personal growth; they feel a sense of pride in making a contribution to schools and education; and they feel as though their years of living are worth something.

We live in an age of hero-worship. A "hero" is someone whose achievement you admire and who inspires you to greatness. On the other hand, a "role model" is someone you admire as a person and whose behavior, attitudes, values, and beliefs you want to emulate. A mentor goes even one step further. They are someone who not only serves as a role model, but who takes the time to develop an active, personal interest in helping a young person grow up to be the best kind of person they can be. With heroes, celebrities, and sports stars, you catch a momentary glimpse of them – in greatness or defeat – but have no sense of the substance behind the glory. Heroes come and go. A mentor is in it for the long haul. Our young need more mentors.

In her book Lanterns, Marian Wright Edelman writes about the many mentors who influenced and inspired her throughout her life. These included her parents, older adults in the community, teachers, ministers, and civil rights leaders. In particular, she describes older women in her neighborhood who, having no children themselves, took on a nurturing role. They made her feel safe and cared about. They also encouraged her:

[My mentors] all stressed how to make a life and to find a purpose worth living for and to leave the world better than I found it. Their emphasis was on education, excellence, and service. [They] encouraged me by work or example to think and act outside the box and to ignore the low expectations many have for Black girls and women.

Without real, live human beings as mentors, what happens is that pop culture fills the void. Media figures play an increasingly prominent role in young people's lives as changing social and demographic patterns continue to weaken and fragment social networks and a sense of family and community. Research has shown that teens often form attachments to celebrities. The relationship with a star can seem as real to the young person as a real relationship they have with family members or friends. Celebrities affect the young person's sense of identity. They guide the identity development process by modeling behaviors, attitudes, and values. And many young people will go to great lengths to emulate celebrities, as is evident by the popularity of celebrity clothing lines and products. The significant influence celebrities can have on teens is of concern, particularly when there are no alternate role models to provide balance.

Research has been done with disadvantaged youth living in group homes and detention centers for juvenile offenders. When asked about the jobs they expect to have when they finish high school, the most prevalent response was sports star, pop music star, or movie star. This is more than a teenager expressing high hopes. It is a lost person expressing unrealistic hopes. These young people have no idea of the work, luck, politics, and tradeoffs behind the success of many pop culture figures. Their unrealistic worldview prevents them from pursuing an education and developing skills that would help them get into good jobs that are attainable.

It's also interesting that some research shows that social comparison with popular figures sometimes leaves young people feeling demoralized and discouraged, particularly when the celebrity has achieved some seemingly unattainable level of success. For example, when asked how they felt when they thought about their idol, young people have reported feeling anxious, disappointed, sad, afraid, and even depressed. Everything in the media is presented as bigger than life, and it's no wonder that young people feel they can't measure up.

Young people don't need more celebrities and media hype. They don't need more contact with immature peers. They need contact with caring, involved adults – parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors – who can give them practical guidance and information about real life. And to be an effective mentor, to make a real difference in a young person's life, you don't have to be a Gandalf. You just have to be someone who cares and who is patient. You don't even have to have it all figured out. Many times, the young just need guidance to help them do the simplest of tasks to get through life. 90% of living consists of simple, practical activities like shopping for groceries and balancing a bankbook.

What is a Mentor?

If you look up "mentor" in the dictionary, you'll find it means a "trusted guide," a "provider of wise counsel,"
a "confidant."

In Greek mythology, the original Mentor was the teacher and faithful counselor, and old and trusted friend, to whom Odysseus entrusted his son Telemakhos when the king of Ithaca had to go off to fight the Trojan war. Images of mentors come in many shapes and sizes, from the grandmotherly fairy godmother to the elfin Yoda to the classic bearded Merlin. Myths, fairy tales, fantasy, and children's stories are filled with mentor figures: the spider woman in Native American lore; Gandalf in Tolkien; Charlotte in Charlotte's Web; Utnapishtim in the Gilgamesh epic; Shazam in Captain Marvel comics; the little old lady in Babar; Tiresias in Greek legend; the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit. And they have become increasingly popular in the media. Who hasn't heard of Tuesdays with Morrie, that bittersweet journal of a young man and his dying mentor?

A mentor may be either gender. They represent knowledge, reflection, insight, and wisdom. They offer understanding, compassion, strategy, and good advice. They engender trust, issue a challenge, provide encouragement, and offer the mentee a positive vision of themselves.

Mentors are role models. What kids see is what they'll be. What kind of role models do we want them to have? Again, it comes back to a matter of choice. Children learn by observing the people around them. Who do we want to populate their life? Childhood can be hard and full of disappointments, pain, loss, and disillusionment. Youth have choices to make that have lifelong implications. Today's children often develop self-doubt and a doubt in the world. We can't fully protect them from this. It's a natural part of the human experience. But what we can do is help them build up their immunity to doubt. We need to help them find hope. We have to help them develop their own character. Pop culture can't do that. Immature peers can't do that. But a mentor can.

Mentoring is about teaching the young "life craft," the skillful means to handle the challenges of everyday living. Yes, mentoring involves talking and perhaps teaching a skill. But at its core, intergenerational mentoring is a process through which older adults pass on to younger people a legacy of life lessons and, hopefully, wisdom. A mentor doesn't impose a doctrine or values on their mentee. A good mentor tries to make a young person more of themselves and helps them develop the ability to make difficult life choices. Mentoring is not about giving answers; it's about helping young people ask the right questions in their search for meaning.

Today, we live in a "professional" world. We don't seek out "elders." We seek out "licensed professionals" for help. My big question: is it working? From the beginning of human history, there's been something to connecting with another, older human being to learn how the world is. It's a relationship that isn't "just professional." In an alienated society, isn't that what we're all looking for? An older mentor who has earned their wisdom has something of value, and the mentor relationship may just be the best way to enable it to be effectively passed on.

Older Adults as Mentors

While any adult can be a mentor, I think older adults are particularly strong candidates for fulfilling the role of mentor. As mentioned earlier, because of the stage of life they're at, many older adults feel a need to create a lasting legacy, and mentoring is a very fulfilling way of doing this. As well, with the demographic shifts in society, older adults become a very practical source of mentors.

When California educator Ethel Percy Andrus founded AARP forty years ago, she believed that the role of older adults was "to serve, not to be served." Her philosophy was to bring "lifetimes of experience and leadership to serve all generations." Says James Firman of The National Council on the Aging, "65 may be meaningful as a speed limit, but it means less and less as a retirement age." Older adults still have important "work" to do. Over the next few years, as the Boomers head into their later years, for the first time in history there will be more older adults than children and youth. These older people are more active, better educated, and healthier than elders of decades past. Because of their sheer numbers, Boomers can have a tremendous impact on society – if they choose to use some of their time mentoring younger generations. They can put time into their own grandchildren, as well as other young people. They have a "golden opportunity" to recreate our image of elders and redefine aging. Aging can become something active rather than passive, positive rather than negative, and focused on contributions to community and care for the future.

For those who don't have grandchildren, intergenerational mentoring is a great opportunity to make a connection with the young. For those who do have grandchildren, particularly ones who live far away, mentoring is a way to keep in touch with the interests, vocabulary, and development of the young. We all need a reason to get up in the morning. Mentoring is fascinating both for the value it brings to individual lives and for the benefits that accrue to society. Said one older adult mentor, "You want to leave good memories of yourself, and you hope to leave something behind that's worthwhile." And for many people who may be experiencing losses in their lives – of spouses or friends – mentoring is a chance to gain another family and new friends. And because these friends are younger, said one mentor, "they don't tend to die on you!"

Finding older adults can initially be a challenge. That's where running a Grandparents Day event can be useful. You can use the event as a stepping-stone to getting long-term volunteers. Aside from recruiting through a Grandparents Day event, you can try relatives of staff, local school board members and their families, churches, seniors centers and retirement communities, even doctors' offices.

An Effective Mentoring Relationship

Mentoring is work of the heart. It offers personal rewards, but it is also about building community, inspiring hope, sharing success, enriching life. You don't need special skills to be an effective mentor. Patience, empathy, and a generous spirit are the greatest gifts a mentor can offer a child.

Older men and women bring a special quality to mentoring. Young adult mentors tend to be more goal-oriented. Older people, with more living under their belt and many personal goals already achieved, tend to be more relationship-oriented. An emphasis on relationship is often the key to making mentoring work. Research shows that the best mentors are those who take their time, who listen to children and get to know them. Mentors in a hurry – "efficient" mentors who have a set goal or are determined to change a young person – usually fail.

Mentoring is not a quick fix. There's no express route to making a difference and building real trust. In a seemingly "inefficient" approach to mentoring, older adults do things at their own pace. They aren't in a hurry. They don't expect kids to do things quickly or correctly at the first try. Mentoring is best performed patiently, and patience is one of the great virtues of age. Also, older people have a different relationship to time than young adults. They can be acutely aware of their life time running out and yet, paradoxically, this awareness makes them take things more slowly so that they can focus on what's meaningful and essential. If you've ever watched a child marvel over the seemingly smallest crack in the sidewalk, you come to realize that in many ways young and old are in the same "time zone." That's a big benefit in a mentoring relationship.

Mentoring involves a one-on-one relationship of mutual commitment, caring, and trust between a more experienced person and a younger person. One of the things young people are often desperate for is a stable, ongoing relationship. A mentor provides this relationship as they teach, challenge, and support a young person. They also serve as a role model and companion. But both mentor and mentee have to enter into the relationship willing to learn from each other. Mentors who become students of their own experience use reflection to inform what they do and how they do it. In reflecting on their experience, they learn something about themselves and as a result are more effective in the relationship. The relationship grows and matures, and mentor and mentee grow with it.

Other basics to effective mentoring:

  • Mentors have to be clear about their own motivations going in – mentoring has to be viewed, above all, as building a relationship, not as changing someone or "saving" the mentee.

  • Mentors must be real, consistently present (i.e. see the mentee regularly), and responsive. This can also include communicating with a mentee's parents, and doing things like attending a mentee's school and community activities.

  • Mentors must work at developing trust, the foundation to any good relationship. A mentee also needs to know their mentor cares about them as a person worthy of being cared about.

  • Mentors should see themselves as a role model, both talking about and demonstrating solid values, what's right and wrong. But mentors don't need to be perfect to be effective. In fact, mentors shouldn't even try to claim to be perfect, but should be honest about their very human self.

  • Mentors need to be sensitive to differences and respect boundaries.

  • One of the biggest things mentors can offer is helping a mentee develop their own goals and encouraging their interests. Listening to the mentee to help them clarify their own ideas is very important, but so too is balancing being supportive with being challenging and realistic.

  • A mentee has responsibilities in the relationship as well. These include showing up; doing their work; showing respect toward their mentor; making a reasonable plan with accomplishable goals.

  • Mentors usually need outside support when the relationship hits a bump (which it will). They need to be reminded that they have something of value to offer and that what they're doing is worthwhile – even if results aren't immediately evident.

When a solid relationship develops and a young person knows that an adult really cares that they aren't in it "just for the money" (a recurring phrase from many young people entering into a mentoring program) they usually lower their defenses and accept help. That's where the hope lies.

What Mentoring Can and Cannot Do

It's easy to get evangelical about mentoring. There is something powerfully appealing, almost intuitive about the concept. But mentoring is something best approached with high hopes and low expectations. We tend to hype and oversell every solution that comes along. Complex problems require more than simplistic solutions. Although there are inspiring stories of miraculous results through mentoring, as with everything else it's mostly about small victories and subtle changes.

Let's start with the hope inherent in mentoring. Mentors can guide and even change the lives of the young. Mentors serve as teachers/trainers; positive role models; nurturers; supporters, guides, and advocates; challengers; and friends/companions. Studies have shown direct links between mentoring and tutoring programs and higher academic achievement, lower dropout rates, fewer teen pregnancies, and safer communities. Some research has shown that the ongoing presence of a caring adult is the single most important factor in contributing to enhanced resiliency (i.e. the ability of a young person to overcome adverse life circumstances). The young person who is able to find their way out of poverty and violence is usually the young person who has had a mentor. Even one caring adult in the life of a young person can make all the difference in the world, opening up opportunities that may have seemed unimaginable. Every child needs a champion. Mentoring is a way to strengthen social supports to individuals, families, and ultimately the community.

Mentors can help the young – those who are advantaged and particularly those "at risk" – figure out life, who they are, and where they fit into the world. In The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent Americans Recall Their Mentors edited by Matilda Raffa Cuomo, Martin Sheen – the President in the popular TV series The West Wing – talks about his mentors. He has served as national spokesperson for Mentoring USA. Sheen was born the seventh child of ten to a Spanish immigrant father and an Irish mother. Sheen identifies three people who served as mentors for him at various times of his life. One was Joseph Papp, a theater icon. Sheen recounts one story when he had been cast as Romeo and felt he was much better suited to the role of Mercutio:

I pleaded my case for the role of Mercutio with passion. On and on I went, from the time it took us to walk from the rehearsal hall up three flights of stairs and across the lobby to his office. Along the way Joe listened patiently, never interrupting my diatribe as he unwrapped and prepared a fresh cigar. As I concluded my argument he looked me in the eye and without hesitation said, "Of course you could play Mercutio. It's not a real challenge for you. That's why you must play Romeo." As I absorbed the truthful shock of his remark, he lit the cigar and said, "Good night, Romeo. See you at rehearsal tomorrow."

Mentors can also be a parent or a grandparent. Letters for Our Children: Fifty Americans Share Lessons in Living edited by Erica Goode is a series of moving letters by ordinary people – parents, grandparents, mentors, and friends – to the young people in their lives. Says Goode:

It could be sobering to think that when parents are asked to pass on to their children their most important life lessons, they so often dwell on adversity. But that would be depressing only if we had the childish faith that things will never go wrong. The real message of many of the letters concerns the human art of resiliency.

Ralph Levy writes to his grandson after 62 years with the Fuller Brush Company, "Never get discouraged. Life has its ups and downs, but if you set goals and then work hard, even through adversity, you will do well." On its face, this may seem like a platitude. But when you realize these are words of hope from a grandfather to a grandson, born of a life's hardship, they take on a meaning that transcends anything any self-help book can give you. That's the power of a real, live, caring adult making a difference in a young person's life.

All the "good stuff" doesn't happen quickly. And that's where realistic or perhaps better yet low expectations come in. Mentors have to have a tremendous amount of patience and not expect a big emotional payoff. Mentoring is hard work, often an endurance test. It can take at least six months to a year for a relationship to begin to develop and change to begin to occur. So programs and relationships need to be in place for at least a year. Said one mentor, "You have to be the type of person that's not going to be discouraged. You want to throw in the towel so often, especially when you feel like you're not getting through." Which is perhaps why there are more young people who need mentors than there are mentors. Getting mentors is difficult enough; getting them to stick with it is even more difficult.

Good intentions aren't enough. Mentors need to be prepared for how hard it will be, and be given some "mentoring" themselves on how to handle their frustrations when they don't seem to be able to make any kind of connection with their mentee. Getting started can be tough. Neither mentor nor mentee may know what to do or what to say. Mentors need to be warned that a mentee may be indifferent, resistant, or even hostile. As the relationship develops, there will be bumps – young people will often test the relationship by missing appointments, cursing to get a reaction, or having an angry outburst. Many mentors feel guilty about their emotional reactions to such occurrences and their seeming inability to deal with problem behavior. Their feelings may get hurt. Most mentors, if they're honest, have both positive and negative feelings toward their mentee; if they're not careful, the negative feelings can begin to outweigh the positive ones. Sometimes, after months and months of putting in a valiant effort, there will be no visible sign that anything has happened. Mentors may be extremely disappointed, often viewing it as a personal failure. The benefit may not be visible until five or six years down the road, when a young person has stayed in school because of the earlier support they received from a mentor. That's definitely not a failure, but neither does it give a mentor immediate personal gratification.

Many mentoring programs, particularly those with younger adults acting as mentors, report perhaps a 50% connection rate at best – with even lower rates more prevalent in programs involving mentees who are severely disadvantaged. Many young mentors, particularly those who are "ideal role models" because they are in successful jobs like managers, lawyers, physicians, and other professions, work long hours. They have trouble seeing their own kids, let alone putting the time into mentoring that it demands. At the same time, many mentees don't show up regularly. They may be very distrustful, which puts all of the burden on the mentor to pursue the relationship. When a mentor does give up, even if the mentee wasn't responding to the mentor, the mentee still feels abandoned. It only adds to their story that no one cares about them.

No matter how young or old the mentor, there can be socioeconomic gulfs in a mentoring relationship that are difficult to bridge. A middle class life may be so foreign and seemingly unattainable for a mentee that a defense mechanism goes up. Different languages are spoken; unfamiliar worlds collide. The potential for misunderstandings is considerable.

While older mentors may have more time and patience to offer mentees, there may be a generational gulf in addition to a socioeconomic one. There may be ageism by both young and old. Older adults may be hesitant to go into tougher neighborhoods. Mentees may see the older person as "out of touch."

The biggest mentoring challenge lies in choosing the right participants, making the right match. The chemistry has to be right for a relationship to develop, which is why the match-making process is so important. It may take two, three, or more matches before mentor and mentee click. Choosing dependable, older mentors may be one part of the equation. Choosing the right young people is the other part of the equation. There are some young people who are receptive, while others are resistant. It's important to try to involve the receptive ones first. Research has also shown that the relationships which form most easily and endure most successfully tend to be those that begin when children are 10 or 11 years old. Sometimes, if you reach severely disadvantaged young people when they're in their teens, it's already too late. There may simply be too many deficits to overcome. And mentoring may never be enough for many young people living in poverty. Mentoring doesn't pluck these young people out of poor homes, inadequate schools, or disruptive communities. It is not the right solution for the problems.

For effective mentoring, programs must have adequate support. This includes allowing for failures. In many programs, there can be tremendous pressure to make connections quickly, produce miraculous results, and tell the "success stories" to keep the program going and bring in new recruits.

When mentoring relationships work, they are truly wonderful. When they don't work, they can be disheartening and even destructive. What we need to do is to try to learn from the failures. The only alternative is to give up hope. The barriers and risks of mentoring do not preclude its real usefulness as a strategy – not as THE strategy, but A strategy.

Making Mentoring Work

We need more mentoring, for all the positive reasons discussed above. In a world full of experts and celebrities, we need more real people to serve as mentors for those young people "at risk" and even for those who are seemingly advantaged (who can get just as lost).

Although natural, spontaneous mentoring relationships make for good books and movies of the week, they are rare. It is particularly difficult for these relationships to form in a society as individualized and isolated as ours. So, mentoring needs a boost. Over the last couple of decades, more and more planned or intentional mentoring initiatives have been implemented.

A formal mentoring program is a way to ensure effective mentoring happens. In many cases, mentoring falls short of its potential because built-in challenges are compounded by the lack of a proper program. Practice is uneven and groups struggle to implement mentoring models. Marketing and recruitment tend to get most of the attention, while support and follow-up are frequently lacking. Mentors find themselves matched, then abandoned. Resources are often very limited, and it is the rare program that has the resources to serve both mentors and mentees.

You need passion with solid program structure. Passion unsupported by a program will fizzle out; and a program without passion doesn't encourage real connections to form. Developing a good program requires caring coupled with planning, time, resources, evaluation, and a tolerance for ambiguity and failure.

To set up a mentoring program, start by getting information and learning all you can. You'll want to base your program on a model that works. The Intergenerational Center at Temple University and Experience Corps, in particular, emphasize older adults as mentors. The Experience Corps is a national program that mobilizes the time, talent, and experience of adults age 55 or older in service to their communities. It helps schools and community groups set up mentoring programs. Marc Freedman heads Experience Corps and has written Prime Time. In the book, he describes the first test sites for Experience Corps:

The good news was that the project [did] manage to attract individuals not usually found in "senior volunteer" programs. They were young (two-thirds in their fifties or sixties), healthy (two-thirds assessing their health as either excellent, very good, or good), not engaged otherwise (only one-third were currently volunteering in another program), and, very happily – in the context of nearly all-female-staffed elementary schools – nearly a third men. The most significant discovery, however, was socioeconomic. Nearly 70 percent of the Experience Corps members across the five cities were African American (and another
11 percent Latino), and most of these were working-class and middle-class individuals who had long been living in the neighborhoods surrounding the schools. The men who volunteered tended to be retired city workers or postal employees, while the women most commonly had backgrounds in nursing and teaching.

Freedman feels this particular mix of mentors resulted in mentors being better able to relate to the young people with whom they were working. He is encouraged by the initial success:

For me, having spent so many years studying mentoring relationships, I was struck by how many powerful bonds formed between the Experience Corps members and the children. It was unlike anything I'd seen before, even in excellent programs such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters. One of the messages of my book about mentoring had been that this endeavor is hard. Yet the connections I witnessed between older persons and elementary school-aged children defied that characterization. The rare exception was the bond that didn't take. I think the connecting success resulted in part because children that age are receptive, often open and eager for love, much more so than adolescents a few years older. However, an equally strong factor is the special qualities that older men and women bring to the mentoring process, qualities that are a close fit with what we know about high-quality mentoring.

Schools which participated were very positive, with comments like "I don't know how we survived before Experience Corps." Freedman goes on:

I encountered a parallel point repeatedly in talking with the men and women in Experience Corps, who often wondered aloud about their own lives before they became involved in this effort. For them, the school had become a kind of renewal center – a place to go in retirement to find purpose, to uncover fresh possibilities, to join a supportive community, and ultimately, for many, to launch a new chapter in their lives. In the process, they were carving out a new relationship between the older population and the schools.

As the Boomers age, they may well bring back a kind of value to volunteering and community building. The Boomers will not only demand enrichment to the role of volunteering, but will also be able to invest it with a prestige it's always deserved but long lacked. Freedman believes that the volunteering efforts of older adults can change society as we know it:

If just 5 percent of the over-65 population could be recruited into such an arrangement – the same proportion of older adults who relocate to retirement communities – the result would be 3-4 million people ultimately engaged in significant service to communities and to the younger generation. That's more than 50 million hours of contribution every week. Furthermore, these calculations do not include the 55-65 age group, an alluring potential pool for efforts combining genuine contribution, income support, and, potentially, health benefits. These findings suggest that with the right vehicle (really, vehicles), Boomers interested in giving back might saturate our neighborhoods, schools, parks, and community organizations with desperately needed human resources – in much the way that same cohort began flooding higher education in the 1960s.

One of the keys to encouraging these older adults to volunteer and mentor is flexibility. Initially, Experience Corps demanded a large commitment of time and energy from its volunteers. It has learned to be more flexible:

A person interested in joining the Experience Corps will now find a range of options for contributing – full-time, half-time, part-time (generally two days a week, for two hours each day), or even some-time, episodic opportunities (focused on discrete projects lasting anywhere from a few days to a month). Over time, this arrangement means that volunteers can move in and out of different options as their life circumstances shift.

The Experience Corps is a very encouraging example of the hope that lies in mentoring, and the results that can realistically be achieved through a solid program.

The Elements of Effective Mentoring Practices have been developed by the National Mentoring Working Group, convened by the United Way of America and The National Mentoring Partnership. These are a set of guidelines, or common principles, to help in the development of responsible mentoring programs. The elements present program components and policies that have proven effective in a wide range of existing mentoring settings. They have been established to encourage solid, responsible mentoring programs that meet the needs of both mentees and mentors. I have added a few elements to the list that are particularly important in mentoring programs involving older adults.

Once a program is formulated, what should mentors and mentees do together? In part that depends on the goals you set for your program. Mentoring programs can take many forms: traditional (one-on-one, role-model relationship); long-term focused activity (focus on a particular goal or project, like a local environmental initiative); short-term focused activity (focus on a particular goal or project, like improving reading skills); team mentoring (more than one mentor with a young person); group mentoring (one mentor with a small group of young people). Activities may fall into five general categories: educational skills; relationship skills; practical living skills; career exploration (very important for mentees 14 years and older); culture and recreation.

Specific activities may include reading books, helping with schoolwork and study skills, learning how to do a budget, learning how to write a letter or do a resume, surfing the web, exchanging e-mails, visiting a library or museum, going to the movies or a concert, attending a sporting event, going shopping, going hiking or running, cooking, going out to dinner, or getting involved in community action together like cleaning up a park. The most-requested form of help from older volunteers is tutoring on a one-on-one basis, often in the area of reading skills. Older adult mentors can also serve as surrogate grandparents for children.

Above all, mentors can provide nurturing and support, someone to talk to and who will listen. Mentees have repeatedly reported that their favorite "activity" with their mentor is just being able to talk with a caring adult who can offer them advice and help them with problems.

The A Year's Worth of Mentoring Activities sheet provides an example of a progressive series of activities a mentor and mentee might engage in over the course of a year. Note that it's important for young people to have a voice in the activities they do with mentors, and that activities be based on their interests. It's also important to understand that the activities mentors and mentees do together don't determine the success of a mentoring program. It's the way mentors approach the activities that counts. As discussed earlier, the most effective mentors tend to be those that focus on the mentee as a person and on building a relationship.

For mentoring programs to work and to make a difference over the long term, we need to develop a mentoring culture. Mentoring is a desire to inspire hope, to share success, to enrich your own life and the lives of those around you. It involves having a sense of responsibility for others and the world we are creating and passing on to the generations that follow us. A mentoring culture is a culture of mutual support – which is really the definition of community.

Mentoring is a way to strengthen social supports to individuals and families. When programs work, families expand their social networks and support systems to become more resilient, and the whole community becomes stronger as diverse groups work together for the common good. But mentoring cannot stand alone as a solution. The young need more than mentors. They also need proper food and housing, education to teach them how to think and to help them develop skills, jobs that give them a real chance at a life, drug treatment programs to help them overcome addictions, and communities that offer alternatives to destructive behavior. Short-term interventions that do not address the underlying problems in a community – poverty, violence, drugs, isolation, and alienation – will not produce long-term impacts. To do that, we need significant social change. Mentoring cannot do it all, but it can become a catalyst for bigger reforms.

Suggested Resources

Experience Corps. A national program started in 1995 that mobilizes the time, talent, and experience of older adults in service to the community. It provides local schools and youth-serving organizations with caring older adults who can work directly with children, tutoring and mentoring.

National Senior Service Corps (Corporation for National Service). An opportunity for seniors to share their time and talents by becoming involved in Foster Grandparents, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or the Senior Companion Program.

The Intergenerational Center, Temple University. Fosters intergenerational cooperation and exchange. It runs a number of intergenerational programs, including the Across Ages mentoring program, and offers training, publications, and videos.

PRIME Mentors of Canada. A Canadian organization that pairs young people and mentors (primarily retirees) one-to-one based on common interests.

Mentoring USA. Operates one-to-one mentoring programs, particularly for "at risk" young people, as well as offering resources and training.

National Mentoring Partnership. An advocate for the expansion of mentoring and a resource for mentors and mentoring initiatives nationwide.

International Mentoring Association, Western Michigan University, Lifelong Learning & Education. An organization made up of individuals and groups interested in the theory and practice of effective mentoring.

The Kindness of Strangers: Adult Mentors, Urban Youth, and the New Volunteerism by Marc Freedman. Cambridge University Press, 1999. A practical, realistic discussion about what mentoring can do, its limits, and what it needs to succeed.

Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America by Marc Freedman. Public Affairs, 1999. A look at the opportunities an aging population brings, including intergenerational mentoring and community service. Includes information on Experience Corps.

Mentorship: The Essential Guide for Schools and Business by Jill M. Reilly. Ohio Psychology Press, 1992. A step-by-step guide for developing a successful mentorship program.

Sharing Wisdom: The Practical Art of Giving and Receiving Mentoring by Robert J. Wicks. Crossroad, 2000. A commonsense approach with mentoring lessons useful in all types of human relationships.

The Miracles of Mentoring by Thomas W. Dortch, Jr. Doubleday, 2000. The 100 Black Men of America organization shares its successful mentorship blueprint.

From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller. Warner, 1995. An inspiring book that encourages older adults to use their life experiences to enrich their later years and in turn pass on their wisdom to younger generations.

Mentors, Masters and Mrs. MacGregor: Stories of Teachers Making a Difference by June Bluestein. Health Communications, 1995. An inspirational book of stories about teachers and mentors from people ranging from Jimmy Carter to Leo Buscaglia to Desmond Tutu.

The Person Who Changed My Life: Prominent Americans Recall Their Mentors edited by Matilda Raffa Cuomo. Birch Lane Press, 1999. Inspirational stories from nearly 80 contributors including Ed Asner, Helen Gurley Brown, Cindy Crawford, Tipper Gore, Larry King, Whoopi Goldberg, and Martin Sheen.

Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors edited by Jeffrey Skinner and Lee Martin. Sarabande, 2001. A clever anthology in which distinguished writers explore how their mentors have shaped them. Each author contributes an essay and a story or poem to demonstrate the stylistic and thematic influences of their mentor.

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org

Go to

Why Important
What is a Mentor?
Older Adults
Effective Relationship
What Can/Cannot Do
Making It Work


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