Most people could name one person who helped guide and support them while growing up, however some are not so lucky. In this piece, former Queensland Premier and YWCA NSW Chief Executive Officer Anna Bligh looks at how mentoring can be a powerful tool for change.
In his inspiring work, A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League, Ron Suskind powerfully draws the link between the attention and example of an adult and a child’s aspirations of a lifetime. He tells us that:
“A boy, if he’s lucky, discovers his limitations across a leisurely passage of years, with a self-awareness arriving slowly. That way, at least he has plenty of time to heroically imagine himself first. Most boys unfold in this natural, measured way, growing up with at least one adult on the scene who can convincingly fake being all-powerful, omniscient, and unfailingly protective for a kid’s first decade or so, providing an invaluable canopy of reachable stars and monsters that are comfortably make-believe.”
Most of us could name someone who cast an “invaluable canopy of reachable stars” above our heads, who helped to guide and support us growing up – parents, siblings, coaches or teachers – those who’ve shared words of wisdom when we’ve had to make a difficult decision, who’ve helped see a different possibility for ourselves, or those that have simply encouraged us to understand what we were passionate about or reach for our goals.
Sadly, not all of us have had this support and inspiration in our lives. Mentoring is gaining renewed interest as a way of giving vulnerable children and young people the impetus and inspiration to jump some of the hurdles in their lives.
I joined YWCA NSW earlier this year and I’ve seen the positive effect mentoring programs offer children – they really can change a life. Providing young people with strong adult support and guidance can and does break the cycle of disadvantage through personal relationships that show them other alternatives. We know the power of education as a transformative experience, but we also know that it takes the help and support of close and caring adults to realise its potential.
Mentoring happens in every corner of the world in many forms, and can not only help individuals, but also communities. A ground-breaking 2013 study conducted by The Boston Consulting Group on the social return on investment of the Big Brothers, Big Sisters mentoring program in Canada gives some interesting insights into the lifetime benefits of these interventions.
The research compared the life outcomes of 500 former Little Brothers and Little Sisters with a control group of individuals from similar family and economic backgrounds who did not have a Big Brother or Big Sister to mentor them as children. The study found that, over their working lives, the former “Littles” were more likely to hold a post-school qualification, more likely to be employed and earn more over their lifetime.
Interestingly, the benefits did not accrue only to the “little”. The study showed that those who had been in the program as a child were more likely to volunteer in their community, more likely to donate to a charity and to give more hours and more money in both cases.
The work also shows these former participants thriving at a personal level, with more than 90 per cent reporting that they feel confident, have made good life choices and feel happy.
In assessing increased taxes, consumption and philanthropic activity from these program participants over a lifetime, the Study concludes that the program offers an $18 return to society on every $1 invested in the program. This is powerful stuff.
It demonstrates that an intensive one-to-one mentoring program can enhance the opportunities and personal wellbeing of those who experience it. But it also points to the positive community, social and economic benefits for us all when a child is given the chance to realise their potential.
Across Australia, there are thousands of young people who do not come from a healthy functioning family. Their circumstances can mean they avoid discussing feelings, fears and sadness, they cannot turn to each other for support and they have difficulty in making decisions.
They are usually exposed to high incidences of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment and mental health concerns and a higher than average number of sole parent families.
There are no silver bullets for these children. But when we look to wrap local support and services around them, the evidence points to the value of intensive mentoring as part of the mix.
Big Brothers Big Sisters is Australia delivers mentoring programs across the country. YWCA NSW has been delivering the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program in NSW for 36 years (following on from the American Big Brother/Big Sister program). We know from our experience and the many inspirational stories we hear from the thousands of “bigs” and “littles” over the years that it’s a powerful tool for change.
We are now working with Big Brothers, Big Sisters Australia, our national body who are partnering with Boston Consulting Group to measure its impact in an Australian context. We are seeking to locate former participants who are very willing to be involved and share their experiences.
The examination of this longitudinal date will make for interesting reading, especially against the backdrop of the US study. Former Bigs and Littles in Australia can join this study by contacting [email protected]
But we know from the stories we hear that the program is powerful. Much of its power lies in the people who decide to weave a canopy of reachable stars for children who are without one – our volunteer mentors.
Not surprisingly, we are always looking for volunteers to be a “big” for one of our “littles”. So if you do one thing today – ask yourself – would I make a good mentor? If your answer is “yes”, give us a call!
This article first appeared on ‘Pro Bono Australia’ on 24 June 2014.