by Mike Garringer
In my time as a technical assistance provider in the youth mentoring field, some of the most difficult and persistent challenges I’ve seen are those faced by rural mentoring programs. While running a high-quality program is difficult in any town or urban environment, the challenges faced by rural programs are considerable: geographic distance between program participants, a dearth of easy-to-do activities, a small fundraising and volunteer base. And in the smallest of small towns, such as those in the area of Iowa where I’m from, you also get a healthy dose of “every knows everyone’s business” issues that can make building trusting, confidential mentoring relationships difficult.
So can youth mentoring really work in rural environments? What challenges do these programs face and how do they overcome them? And is it possible that rural programs actually have some advantages over their urban counterparts?
To answer these questions, I’ve asked a panel of leading experts on running programs in rural areas to weigh in on the promise and hurdles of offering mentoring in rural areas.
Not only does mentoring work in rural areas, I believe that mentoring has the potential to be even more influential for youth in rural areas than in urban areas. There may be greater challenges in building and sustaining a mentoring program, but mentoring itself can be extremely powerful in a small community.
In the first place, isolation for vulnerable rural youth is literal, not figurative. Our kids often live miles away from their neighbors and are literally stuck at home, often with nothing to do but watch TV and play video games. The opportunity to hang out with a safe, fun adult has also meant the first time ever going to a restaurant or movie theater; the first time hiking, fishing, or exploring in their own community; or the first time visiting a home that is quiet, clean and safe. For youth who haven’t been exposed to extreme violence or drugs, simply reducing their physical isolation and letting them know they are valued can have an enormous impact. They are like thirsty plants, because their self-esteem and social skills increase incredibly quickly.
Another powerful way in which mentoring works in rural areas is the potential of each mentor-mentee relationship to affect the entire community. In a rural environment, socio-economic differences manifest in cultural—and geographic—gulfs in the community. It is very easy for more comfortable, affluent community members to avoid acknowledging the challenges faced by other community members and to judge the kids from the “bad” families. Mentors act as bridges across those gulfs, allaying fears of the Other on both sides while they build relationships that weave the entire community closer together. The fact that many people know each other in a small community is an asset once the process gains momentum; adults begin role modeling compassion among their peers just as much as they do for their mentees, and opportunities open up for youth who would never have had them.
In Canada, Big Brothers Big Sisters is an established organization with 100 years of experience behind it. Our name conveys credibility, legitimacy and quality to families across the country which results in numerous requests for service from communities, urban and rural and remote.
Our organizational approach – the establishment of an independent agency requiring a Board of Directors, a charitable number, etc. – is an effective model in urban centres. However, Canada has many rural and remote areas that may not be best served by that organizational structure and where our formal mentoring programs may not be a fit. Picture Flying Dust First Nation, a Cree community of about 800 people, in a fairly isolated part of Saskatchewan. Or Carcross, Yukon Territory, a primarily First Nations community, of less than 300 people, with one road in. Or the many fly-in communities, or ice-road only access communities, that dot the far, and not so far, North. It just isn’t reasonable for Big Brothers Big Sisters to assume that our model of structure and service delivery will be effective or feasible.
But that doesn’t mean that mentoring won’t work. In fact, informal mentoring has worked in these communities for centuries. It’s when we try to impose our structure, our Standards, our beliefs of what is right and our urban model of mentoring that we concoct our own challenges. By listening to the strategies that have been effectively employed, by understanding the strengths and resources that already exist in rural and remote areas and by truly understanding and applying the core components of the elements of effective mentoring relationships and programs, we can work alongside community members to tailor mentoring relationships and programs that can work well.
Unquestionably, in rural communities, recruiting mentors for youth is a challenge. Distance is a factor. How do you spend an hour a week with your mentee when you might have to travel an equal amount of time just to get to the session? Let’s look at the positives. It takes a whole village to mentor a child. In my experience, I think it is actually an advantage to mentor in rural areas because often the community wants to help their own within a five mile radius of where they live. There is a built in community bond there that is often missing in urban programs.
A few years ago, I designed a program in Port Aransas, TX. Most get to this fishing village by boat. Soon after I arrived, the folks wanting to begin the program said, “Who will we get as the mentors? We have no other industry here. Not even a bank…” Well, we used the village as our base. We recruited the local fishermen — who became mentors for the youth — and many of the mentees became interested in becoming fishermen and wanted to learn the trade. A career-based mentoring program developed before our eyes. We also recruited the only doctor, postman, fireman, and policeman, all of whom became mentors.
However, there are many rural areas where there is a challenge to match mentors and mentees. In my work in Indian country, many of the reservations have youth that live a long distance from the interested and prospective mentors. The solution for them has become e-mentoring – three weeks a month with supervised, software-based computer generated discussions, and in-person meetings once a month.
Another way to approach this in rural America is seen in the work of organizations like the local Boys & Girls Clubs where youth thrive in a safe haven after school. The schedule for meetings is much more flexible. The mentors meet the mentees after work, often between 3 – 7 p.m., before the Club closes. This flexibility of meeting times can alleviate some of the scheduling issues that challenge rural programs.
Rural America needs to become creative in terms of finding mentors. These programs may not always look like their more traditional urban counterparts, but the outcome can be incredible for mentors and mentees.
So what do you think? If you run a rural program, tell us about your biggest hurdles and how you overcome them. Are there things that may be easier for you than your urban counterparts? Add to the comments below…we’d love to hear your best practices for mentoring in rural areas!