Greetings from Portland, Oregon!
This week I’m attending the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring at Portland State University. Professional development for those of us working in the field of youth mentoring is mainly available only by the written word. The Institute is a superlative opportunity, an intensive 40-hour seminar where researchers and practitioners gather to dialogue about the latest theory and research and to explore how those ideas intersect with on-the-ground practice in all aspects of working with mentors and mentees.
The theme for the 2013 Institute focuses on the role of risk and other personal and environmental factors that influence mentoring relationships and their effectiveness. Say, what?
Think of every child’s life as a tree. From the trunk of life’s beginning, the path of life can go up and out any of the different branches. Closer to the trunk, the chances to jump to a different branch, and then to yet another branch, are limitless. The farther out on a branch, the harder it will be to change paths and jump to something different.
A child’s environmental risk factors place him on a branch. For the children of prisoners, a circumstance completely outside the youngster’s control has predetermined living on a certain branch of the tree, which is still full of options. Other key environmental risk factors are poverty (nearly always a factor when one or both parents are incarcerated), traumatic childhood experiences, substandard educational opportunities, etc.
Personal risk factors have an element of choice by the youth. Truancy, dropping out of school, substance abuse, and involvement in the juvenile justice system are high on the list. Personal risks involve decisions that may propel her farther along on the branch where her environmental risks had placed her. It’s easy to see how the expression “out on a limb” applies.
Helping professionals in many fields – education, justice, mental health, youth development – plan interventions to introduce protective factors. Protective factors are conditions and experiences that move a child onto or help him along a healthy branch, instead of one of those rickety ones.
Mentoring is designed to introduce the #1 protective factor – a caring adult relationship. Children of the incarcerated each have a single compelling environmental risk plus an array of other environmental and personal risks. In mentoring, the investment of time by a caring adult who is consistent, intentional, and open to being trained and coached can have an influence on a child’s risk profile. During a mentoring relationship, tiny shifts in a child’s position in the tree may be hard to perceive. But you can know that, behind all the foliage of daily life (whether drab or colorful), a mentor can make a difference.
Falba Turner ~Director of Mentor Programs – Seedling Foundation