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Mentoring and
Community Building

"I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live."

George Bernard Shaw

It's popular to make a distinction between "life" and "work." It's like the two are separate. Work was once perceived to be a noble, character-building enterprise. Now people seem to downgrade work. "Get a life" they say, or "there's more to life than work." But the simple fact is that work is life. From the beginning of time, we have had to work to make our way in the world, starting at the basic level of clothing and feeding ourselves. Work also makes society possible -- from the person who picks up your garbage in the morning to the teacher who educates your child to the doctor who gives you bypass surgery. Particularly in today's complex world, we can't do it alone. Our privileges and goods for daily living come to us from the shared labor of others. The food you get at the store doesn't magically appear; it has been grown, picked, packaged, transported, and shelved by the work of others. The work of each person is needed to make society work. And we owe something to the society in which we live and from which we benefit. Work is really the basis of our service to community. It is also how we shape our lives, sustain our families, build our communities, and, ideally, find at least part of our personal meaning. When they retire, many people find themselves lost because the meaning and sense of contribution their work gave them is suddenly gone. Golf may be fun, a pleasant way to relax once in a while, but it doesn't have the meaning that work (paid or volunteered) can have.

The distinction between work, family, and life is a false one. I don't think the problem is in work itself. The problem is that much work in its present form does not allow us to truly sustain ourselves and our families. It is so rigidly structured that we must choose between how and when to care for our families and how and when to contribute to society, often to the detriment of one or the other. The existing work world also puts far too much pressure on us to accomplish too much, too quickly, without adequate support, resources, or remuneration. And the problem is that work we do is often drained of its meaning. It's not the fault of work itself, but the fault of a society in which we do not value all who contribute and their interconnection. We live in an individualistic world that overemphasizes personal gratification to the exclusion of a sense of community. Why is a professional baseball player paid so much more than a teacher -- the one working essentially for themself (or a small group) while the other works for the betterment of our entire community and future? If there's an imbalance, I don't think it's between "work" and "life" but between "me" and "us."

Work should be about all of us pulling together to support each other and create a good society. Individualism finds its roots in the denial of the simple fact that we need each other. But human beings are interdependent. We need each other to make our world, to find our way in the world, and to develop meaning. If we have a sense of community, then we are nurtured, our families are nurtured, and the work we do is given meaning.

We certainly need social change. We also need a way to help people find their way in an increasingly complex world. Some may argue that it's not completely clear whether growing up now is riskier and harder than it once was, or whether we are simply more aware of it and better at measuring it. It doesn't matter. What matters is that there are too many casualties, too many wounded, too many close calls, too much unfulfilled potential. Whether young people are advantaged or "at risk," one of the big things they need is mentoring. How can young people today make the difficult choices they have to make, choices that have long-term consequences? How do you find work with meaning? How do you learn about human relationships and politics? How do you find out what the world is really like? The world isn't what we see on TV or read in self-help books. But what other models or avenues do the young have for finding out what it is like?

What we all need is a Gandalf. The recent popularity of the Lord of the Rings movie has made Gandalf a shining example of the power of a mentor, someone older and hopefully wiser who can "show us the ropes" and help us prepare for the challenges of life. Gandalf would have been wonderful to have around when I was younger. He even could come in handy now that I am supposedly "grown up." There is something magical, as magical as the movie itself, about older helping younger. We live in a "professional" world. We look to "experts" and "licensed professionals" to help us. While these have their place, are they fulfilling all our needs? 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?

The Intergenerational Mentoring section in the Grandparents Day Activity Kit introduces the idea of mentoring, emphasizing in particular mentoring between older adults and the young. This section explores the concept further, and links it to the bigger issue of building inclusive community for all ages.


Mentoring Brings Young and Old Together

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.

Other books that offer insights and inspiration into mentoring include Mentors, Masters and Mrs. MacGregor by Jane Bluestein; The Person Who Changed My Life by Matilda Raffa Cuomo; Letters for Our Children by Erica Goode; Am I Old Yet? by Leah Komaiko; What's Worth Knowing by Wendy Lustbader; Generation to Generation by Sandra Martz; From Age-ing to Sage-ing by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi; Passing the Word by Jeffrey Skinner.

Mentoring is a powerful and appealing concept. Mentoring relationships have occurred in all cultures throughout history. In Greek mythology, the original Mentor was the teacher and faithful counselor, an 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. In ancient Chinese culture, sage kings stepped aside following a process of teaching, coaching, and modeling for their successor. The origin of programmatic or planned mentoring is found in the tradition of apprenticeships in which artisans taught their crafts to successive generations. These were institutionalized in various ways in such diverse cultures as ancient Babylon and Egypt, early Rome, Europe in the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance.

A "mentor" is variously defined as a "trusted guide", a "provider of wise counsel", and a "confidant." Mentoring is generally a relationship between a more experienced person and a younger person which involves mutual caring, commitment, respect, and trust. It is about teaching a younger person "life craft" (the skillful means to handle the challenges of everyday living) and offering them guidance in navigating the tricky path into adulthood. A good mentor doesn't impose a doctrine or set of values on their mentee. They try to help a young person become more of themselves and help them develop the ability to make difficult life choices. Mentoring is not necessarily about giving answers; it's about helping young people ask the right questions in their search for meaning. A good mentoring relationship is also one in which there is mutual personal growth, with the mentor learning as much as the mentee.

Images of mentors come in many shapes and sizes, from the grandmotherly fairy godmother to the elfin Yoda. A mentor may be either gender. They may assume many roles: teacher/trainer; positive role model; nurturer; supporter, guide, and advocate; challenger; and friend/companion. I often use a storybook by Laurence Anholt, Leonardo and the Flying Boy, to explore the nature of the mentoring relationship. Aside from being a fun-filled, accessible introduction to one of science and art history's most fascinating figures, this wonderful book shows the mentor relationship between Leonardo da Vinci and one of his real-life apprentices Zoro. It's a way to introduce both children and adults to the concept of intergenerational mentoring.

How do mentors fit into a star-struck, hero-worshipping society? 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. Mentors can offer young people real insight and realistic information. A "hero" is someone whose achievement you admire and who inspires you. 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 you grow to be the best kind of person you can be. Heroes come and go. A mentor is in it for the long haul.

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 be 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.

While any adult can be a mentor, older adults are particularly strong candidates for fulfilling the role. There are several reasons for this. Many older adults feel a need to create a lasting legacy and make a contribution, and mentoring is a natural way to do just that. One recent study revealed that older adults (60 years and over) actually derive more personal benefits from volunteering than younger adult volunteers (25-59 years). Older volunteers experienced greater increases in life satisfaction over time, and greater positive changes in their perceived health.

Mentoring can give older adults a very powerful social role to fulfill. In From Age-ing to Sage-ing, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi articulates an Elder Creed:

An elder is a person who is still growing, still a learner, still with potential and whose life continues to have within it promise for, and connection to, the future. An elder is still in pursuit of happiness, joy, and pleasure, and her or his birthright to these remains intact. Moreover, an elder is a person who deserves respect and honor and whose work it is to synthesize wisdom from long life experience and formulate this into a legacy for future generations.

As we live longer, healthier lives and create new life maps, mentoring can become something that gives meaning and purpose to older adulthood. And sometimes by mentoring a young person, older adults can find some of the life answers they may be looking for themselves.

Mentoring may reflect the normal life progression into the role of grandparent. At the University of Toronto in Canada, a new mentoring initiative finds Lillian McGregor as the first "elder-in-residence" -- but she prefers to be called grandmother. As a "grandmother," she provides personal counseling and wisdom to U of T's native students. "Grandparents carry on the traditions, the knowledge of our ancestors, our background." she says. "That knowledge must be preserved." She feels that simple philosophy can get lost in today's complicated world. There are too many distractions, too many labels, too many messages, too much technology, and not enough face-to-face communication. Students come to talk to McGregor in an informal, open setting about finishing their education, their battles to stay true to their aboriginal roots, and the challenges of living in the big city. Her schedule is always fully booked. She is 80 years old, and refuses to be slowed down by a stroke and a lifelong battle with diabetes. She finds her new role of university grandmother brings meaning to her life, which allows her to put her personal challenges into a larger context.

Older people may also be at the best stage of life to be effective as mentors. Research shows that the best mentors are those who take their time, who listen to young people and get to know them. An emphasis on building a relationship is often key to making mentoring work. 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. In a seemingly "inefficient" approach to mentoring, older adults do things at their own pace. They aren't in a hurry. Mentoring is best performed patiently, and patience is one of the great virtues of age. When we're younger, we busily build a legacy through establishing a career, starting a family, and finding our place in the world. We have things to do, places to go. When we're older, we tend to build a legacy more simply, by passing on what we've learned. An older person can focus less on themselves and more on building a relationship with a young person because they've done what they need to do for themselves. Think of Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs: you must first fulfill the lower needs before you can fulfill the higher ones.

Young people may respond more positively to older rather than younger mentors. In recent mentoring studies, the most successful and enduring relationships were those in which older adults were the mentors. Older adults tended to be perceived as nonprofessional and nonauthoritative, so young people were more responsive. This is one situation where the perceived wisdom of age (think Gandalf or Yoda) can work to an older person's benefit, and to the benefit of the relationship. Also, family members may see older adults as less of a threat, and so are more supportive of the mentoring relationship and encourage their children to stick with it.

Older adults bring more life experience to mentoring, are often more committed and dependable, and are frequently more available. This last point is particularly important. With the demographic shifts in society, older adults can be a very practical source of mentors. There are more older adults, and more of them are interested in volunteering. In a 1999 poll of older Americans aged 50-75 titled The New Face of Retirement, fully half of respondents said that volunteering or engaging in community service is very or fairly important to their retirement plans. Volunteering and community service ranked only behind travel in importance. 59% of respondents said that they had volunteered or done community service work in the past year. Interestingly, 43% of the older Americans cited former President Jimmy Carter, with his commitment to community service, as the best role model for retirement. In another study, nearly 1/3 of older volunteers were performing direct service roles as "tutor, advisor, coach, companion, etc." They seemed naturally drawn to a mentor-like role. Age was also found to be associated with hours spent volunteering. Older respondents contributed more time as volunteers than did younger respondents.

In an aging world, mentoring relationships between older adults and the young can help promote intergenerational interaction to combat age segregation, dispel stereotypes of aging, encourage an appreciation of heritages and traditions, and celebrate the strengths and value of young and old. Mentoring offers personal rewards, but it's clear it is also about inspiring hope, sharing success, enriching life at both ends of the age spectrum, and building community.


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 talks about his mentors. He has served as national spokesperson for Mentoring USA. The currently popular "President of the United States" on TV's West Wing, 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.

Mentoring involves a one-on-one relationship of mutual commitment. One of the things many young people are often desperate for is a stable, ongoing relationship. A mentor can offer a young person such a relationship. But mentoring is not just a one-way deal. 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.

If there's one "magic" key to mentoring, it may be that mentoring is about building a relationship. Unfortunately, we live in the era of the quick fix, and building a relationship isn't quick. 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. A solid relationship often must evolve through a long, slow, tedious, frustrating process. 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.

But all this "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.

Says Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in From Age-ing to Sage-ing:

Mentoring is a little like dancing. Sometimes the partners move with grace and lightfootedness, while other times they step on each other's toes. Sometimes they move listlessly to the same old tune, while on other occasions they improvise new dance steps as the music inspires them to deeper levels of self-expression.

Choose the right dance partner, then be willing to keep dancing. That may be the best advice of all.


More Mentoring

We need more mentoring, for all the positive reasons discussed earlier. 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. Some books with insights and information on mentoring: The Miracles of Mentoring by Thomas W. Dortch, Jr.; For All Our Daughters by Pegine Echevarria; The Kindness of Strangers by Marc Freedman; Prime Time by Marc Freedman; Elder Mentor Handbook by Nancy Henkin et al; Linking Lifetimes by Nancy Henkin et al; Training Mentors Is Not Enough by Hal Portner; Mentorship by Jill M. Reilly; Sharing Wisdom by Robert J. Wicks.

Then hook into organizations that offer mentoring information and program support: Experience Corps; Center for Intergenerational Learning (Temple University); Future Possibilities; International Mentoring Association; Mentoring USA; National Mentoring Partnership; National Senior Service Corps (Corporation for National Service); PRIME Mentors of Canada.

You'll want to base your program on a model that works. Linking Lifetimes (Center for Intergenerational Learning, 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 baby 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, attend 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 nurturance 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.

A mentoring culture involves active community collaboration. Agencies and institutions serving the young and the old must work together. The degree to which agencies share similar or complementary goals, have clear and reasonable expectations, and develop a high level of trust will influence the likelihood of forming successful relationships. For example, schools may feel a mentoring program is taking students away from preparing for standardized tests or requiring too much supervision from teachers. A seniors agency may feel that not enough consideration is being given to the needs or limitations of older adults. Thoughtful planning and ongoing communication are essential to insuring all parties are invested in the program and want to move forward.

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.


Building Community for All

There is a Vietnamese saying: In hell, people starve because their hands are chained to six-foot long chopsticks, too long to bring rice to their mouths; heaven is the same -- only there, people feed each other.

My grandmother was fond of telling me that a single straw will not help you do much work, but put a bundle together and you have a broom that will sweep the floor. In our society today, we're too focused on the single straw. We don't feel our destinies bound up with one another. We focus on the individual, not believing that the individual may actually be better off if we also pay attention to the community. We need to believe, really understand and believe, that we are all in this thing called life together.

What we believe is key, because the stories we tell ourselves shape our reality to a great extent. Instead of believing that "my" goal is important, we must believe that both "my" goal and the common goal are important; instead of believing "my" needs are paramount, we must believe both "my" needs and the needs of others are important; instead of believing "I" work and learn alone, we must believe that we work and learn together; instead of believing that "I" work and live to benefit myself, we must believe that "I" work and live to benefit both myself and others; instead of believing "I" am responsible and accountable only to "myself," we much believe that "I" am responsible and accountable to "myself" as well as others.

An ideal community gives its members a sense of identity and belonging, connectedness to something bigger, a measure of security, a framework of shared values, a network of caring individuals, and the experience of being needed. In a caring community, people depend on each other and take responsibility for each other. Communities at their best are interactive. Individuals give to the community, and the community supports the individual. This is true at the neighborhood, city, national, and global levels.

The modern world has lost much of its sense of community. And like so many other words, the word "community" has been overused, stretched, and worn thin. Invoking it has become just one more way to sell products and evoke good feelings. We are told incessantly that we are part of a "global village." But technology has not contributed to the creation of real community, offering instead only the illusion of community. You can log on and off the Internet at will. You have no real stake in it. You can't witness a crime and be pressed into public duty. You don't have to have the character to stick through the tough stuff. Building community, just like building family, happens through endless, small, tedious acts. It is the commonplace experiences -- the listening, talking, seeking of advice, complaining, laughing, working together, eating together, even the dull regularity of seeing the same face day after day -- that give people a belief that they can know and rely on one another and, in turn, that they can be relied upon and known.

Because the commonplace isn't exciting and we are a society addicted to adrenaline, we evade real community and end up identifying with pop culture. We think we know the people on Friends. We want our life to be like that. We feel familiar, even intimate with these people. But even as we identify with popular figures from Oprah to Dr. Laura, we remain alone. We cut ourselves off from the real people in our lives like family and friends because these relationships are often "too demanding" or "too constraining." Connection requires sacrifice and action. In family and in community, we accumulate obligations and commitments to other people as we go through life. But, we protest, we need to be "ourselves."

That brings us to the paradox of community. The dilemma is that in order for community (and family) to thrive, individuals must willingly sacrifice some of their free will to the collective good. Group needs and expectations inevitably place limits on how we can express ourselves. We have a yearning for the exercise of our own distinct agency, of who we are as individuals, and a yearning for belonging, connection, and inclusion. There is constant tension throughout our lives between these forces of differentiation and connection, individual desires and group expectations.

Look at the movie Witness. In one scene, the Amish come together for a barn raising. It is the ideal of community at its best. Young and old come together to build something, experience the pride of accomplishment, and enjoy each other's company all at once. There is much to admire in this scene and others in the film. Yet, many people find the movie's ending "unhappy." Why, they ask, can't the two main characters, Rachel (the Amish woman) and John (the outsider, a police officer), get together to live "happily ever after?" How can they give up "true love?" It seems to be far too great a sacrifice. But why is this considered a sad ending? Rachel and John make the choice not to get together. Like most of us in life, they do have a choice. It is not an easy choice, but they have it. Either way, they both gain and lose. One of the two individuals, Rachel or John, would have had to give up their community in order to be together. Both of them derive significant personal meaning from their group; they would not be the same people if they removed themselves from their group in order to be with each other. They would have had to cut themselves off from their respective families. Instead of pursuing the myth of romance (see The True Story About Love section of this kit), they choose instead to pursue the myth of community. Remember, the stories we tell ourselves shape our reality to a great extent. The community will continue to thrive and offer its members support because individuals make the choice not to buy into other myths.

Where do we draw the line between the individual and the group? On what values do we base our choices and decisions? I would argue that the pendulum has swung too far toward the individual -- in fact, it's stuck there. This affects many of the choices we make -- or the lack of choices we perceive we have.

People give lip service to the cozy ideas of giving, caring, and sharing, but daily life is rife with images and attitudes than run counter to these ideals. The needs of others, and the idea of giving something up yourself in order to give to others, is often seen as a weakness, not a strength. We are told everywhere -- from TV talk shows, to the pages of magazines and newspapers, to the latest surveys, to commercials and billboards -- that YOU, the Individual, come first. Get what you want -- and get it faster. While North Americans have historically been individualistic, we have moved far beyond simple individualism. We have become the champions of our worlds, the stars of our own fantasies and real-life dramas. We do not just want to be good or able; we want to be a superstar. We are all busy pursuing self-fulfillment.

The truth is that we live in a society of great wealth, where many have more comforts than our ancestors and indeed most of the world. But it's not good enough -- because we're not "happy." We are obsessed with "being happy." We feel that happiness must be our supreme goal. Everything is measured by a simplistic, pop psychology yardstick. In the last few decades (and that's really all it's been), millions of people have come to believe that families are dysfunctional and there are emotional issues that must be resolved through therapy, support groups, and self-help books. Unhappy? It's your childhood. Your parents did it. You did it. You aren't trying hard enough. Problems that were once considered economic, political, educational, or simply the reality of living are now deemed psychological. It has blinded us to underlying economic and political realities. In a society plagued by divisions of race, class, gender, and age, we are all otherwise occupied in our pursuit of psychological happiness.

The self-help movement's focus on our own internal healing just fosters personal aggrandizement to the exclusion of other concerns. Is happiness all there is? Is it all that matters? What about responsibility? What about violence and poverty? What about character? And what if it's hard? Should we worry about it? Or do we just focus on ourselves as individuals, and our own happiness and fulfillment? Said Albert Einstein, "To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cows."

Psychological contentment is certainly an important standard for individuals. There is nothing wrong with wanting to achieve some level of happiness or at least contentment. But when a whole society makes happiness and self-fulfillment the omnipotent goal, something is wrong. Throughout history, an emphasis on the personal psyche has...

From Valentine's Activity Kit by Susan V. Bosak ©2004