Learn About National Mentor Month with Michael Knowles.
Not even the best school in the world can teach a young person everything necessary to succeed in life. To cite a well-known proverb, it really does take a village.
One of the most helpful members of that village can be a mentor. And such a person can be especially impactful in the life of an at-risk child or teenager.
“A study came out in the fall of 2020 that said it takes 17 adults pouring into one child’s life for that child’s development to be successful,” says Michael Knowles, founder of Good Neighbor Tutoring, a Columbus, Georgia nonprofit that helps children with academics, life skills, material needs and spiritual formation.
“That is a significant number, and when you look at at-risk populations, typically one of the defining characteristics of that group is there are less than two parents in the home. If that’s a kid’s starting point, how difficult is it to get to 17? So [the challenge] is how do we create space to bring adults in to love kids and help them discover their passions, and make them passionate about learning?”
Organizations such as Knowles’ are part of a movement that is celebrated every January via National Mentoring Month. Led by MENTOR, a Boston-based advocacy group, it’s a focused time for growing the movement and raising awareness about the power of relationships.
Mentoring organizations range from those that serve children and teenagers, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, and Big Brothers Big Sisters, to career-oriented groups for young adults and even older professionals.
Many colleges and universities have mentoring programs in which volunteers share their experiences and offer advice to students. Valdosta State’s Next Step Major Mentoring Program, for example, pairs students with a professional development coach and an employer partner within their field of study or desired career industry. At the University of Georgia, the UGA Mentoring Program has facilitated more than 2,700 mentoring relationships.
Whatever the academic level, Knowles says the best mentoring programs supplement the education system.
“Our goal is not to reinvent the schools,” he says. “Our goal is to come alongside and fill in some of the gaps. There are things that the school system just cannot get to, like tying a tie, or interviewing, or woodworking, or changing the oil in a car, so we want to do those things in our life skills piece.”
At-risk young people are a sad reality in Georgia. In the 2021 edition of WalletHub’s annual state-by-state comparison of at-risk youth, one finding was that Georgia ranks fifth in highest percentage of youth without a high school diploma.
The personal finance website also found Georgia was 15th among states with the most idle youth (i.e., not in school and not employed). Clearly, there’s a significant need for youth mentors in the Peach State, including in local communities across southeast, southwest and middle Georgia.
“It’s a great cause and I would encourage anybody to be a part of it,” Knowles says. But he also issues a word of caution:
“The cost has to be weighed. You have to ask, ‘How much am I willing to give up to love this kid?” Because love has a cost. It’s not something you can start and then get tired of in six weeks and walk away. And that’s hard when a kid pushes you away because they’re mad about something. What they’re trying to do, in my experience, is see if you’re going to leave like everybody else does. Because that’s what the vast majority of our culture does. We’re here for the photo opp, then we’re out.”
Knowles adds that if a mentee does actually decide to end the relationship, it doesn’t mean the mentor has failed.
“Just because [a youth] has made decisions and behaved in a way that is the opposite of what we want our program to produce, that doesn’t mean other kids aren’t benefiting,” he says. “If he says, ‘I don’t want anything more to do with this,’ that’s his choice, and this is still a good cause. There is hope and there are lots of positive things happening.”
Get Involved in Mentoring
Interested in becoming part of the mentoring movement? Mentoring.org is a great place to start. Look for the “Take Action” tab at the top of the homepage and explore the options, including:
Become a Mentor:
An online form allows visitors to enter their location and other parameters to see what opportunities exist near them.
Become an Advocate:
An Advocacy page offers numerous means for understanding legislation, connecting with lawmakers and influencing policy.
Start a Program:
Can’t find a program in your local area? Start one with the help of MENTOR’s vast resources and network of experts.
Written by Allen Allnoch