How can we prepare mentors to work with children in poverty? Leaders weigh in!

Michael Garringer Now on podcast

by Michael Garringer

One of the biggest challenges for the mentoring field is the often large gap in socio-economic status between those who are volunteering to mentor and those receiving services. Research has shown that mentors in America tend to be more highly educated and employed (this 2005 MENTOR study highlighted that 70% of formal mentors were employed full-time, with 44% having an annual income of $75,000 or more). Obviously, the youth served by most mentoring programs often do not come from such economically-stable environments—43% of the youth in the recent Role of Risk study came from households making less than $20,000/year, with almost a quarter living in “extreme” poverty.

This disparity can have a substantial impact on the development of mentoring relationships. In fact, this wide socio-economic gap was cited in the groundbreaking work of Renee Spencer as being one of the main factors in mentors ending their relationships prematurely. They often felt unprepared for the conditions of their mentees’ lives.

So how can mentoring programs address this topic and prepare mentors for working with youth who come from disadvantaged circumstances? How can these topics be best addressed during training? What resources can help mentors prepare for this circumstance? And is there a mindset or way of thinking about poverty in America that fits well with the work that mentors must do?

We’ve asked several prominent leaders in the mentoring field to share their thoughts. Feel free to add your training ideas and go-to resources in the comments below.


spencerRenee Spencer – Chair, Human Behavior Department, Boston University School of Social Work

I am so glad you are raising this issue, Michael! In addition to feeling overwhelmed by the realities of mentees’ lives, another significant obstacle to mentoring relationship development and sustainment I have observed when interviewing mentors, mentees, and parents is a lack of appreciation on the mentor’s part of the challenges confronting families living in poverty. Mentors can become annoyed by what appears to them to be a lack of organization or discipline on the family’s part. What many mentors may not realize is that the high level of control over their own life circumstances they often experience stems in part from the privileges they enjoy as a middle income person. Having consistent telephone service, reliable transportation, and a highly regular and relatively predictable work schedule are some examples of the advantages of life in the middle class.

As a social work educator, I see some of these same issues arise as new students express irritation at their clients’ missed appointments or a parents’ seeming disregard of the needs of a child. When they take the step to inquire further about the circumstances behind these situations, they learn about the lengthy bus ride with multiple changes a trip to their office requires or perhaps about the chronic illness faced by another child in the family and the gut wrenching choices a parent has to make when deciding how to distribute scarce resources among all of their children. Without training and support around helping mentors to develop greater understanding of the challenges to everyday living confronted by families in poverty, misunderstandings and miscommunications can mount and erode the mentoring relationship over time, even when the mentor and youth have managed to develop a pretty strong connection.


graigGraig Meyer – Director, Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools

I’m not a big fan of the “culture of poverty” argument. I find it to be paternalistic (see this article for a good critique). People create culture to make meaning out of their lives, and I just don’t know many people who want the meaning of their life to be living in poverty. Unfortunately, a lot of people have some paternalistic beliefs about people living in poverty. When mentors carry these beliefs, they run a real risk of damaging their mentoring relationship when their belief system leads them to make judgments about their mentee and their mentee’s family. These may start as well-intentioned concerns about a child and their family, but once a child or parent senses even the smallest amount of judgment from a mentor they usually start to withdraw from the relationship.

To me, the biggest impact of poverty is the stress it creates in people’s lives. The stress, in turn, has real impacts on the lives of young people, particularly on childhood brain development.  The stressors of poverty actually shut down important elements of brain functioning, making it hard for children to learn or even just make decisions. Mentors can do things that provide important support which reduces the stressors in a child’s life.  The simplest thing is that mentors who provide mentors with regularly scheduled activities help to reduce stress simply by being consistent. During mentoring time, mentors can reduce the effects of stress simply by doing activities that are the opposite of stress – pretty much anything that is fun, physical, nurturing, supportive, or strength building. While mentors can also be instrumental in helping kids process stressful events or circumstances, I advise mentors not to press their mentees about those things. If your mentee wants to process, be there for her. But sometimes she may just want a break from the more stressful parts of life.

As a program, we try to help our mentors see the strengths in their mentee, the mentee’s family, and the surrounding community. In our pre-service training, we take mentors on a bus tour of the communities where our mentees live. It’s honestly a little awkward pulling into the projects on a bus, but we think it’s important for them to see the community through our eyes and not just hear about it. We do talk some about safety issues, gangs, etc. But we try to emphasize more about the social networks that exist within the communities and the resources that are available within the communities (like an after school center, or a computer lab). We encourage the mentors to spend time getting to know their mentee’s community. We amend an old proverb to say “Yes it takes a village to raise a child, but the village is not a stranger.”


janethJanet Heubach – Senior Program Officer, Washington State Mentors; Carla Herrera – Independent Mentoring Researcher

The recently published Role of Risk report (Herrera, DuBois, Grossman, 2013) examined how the levels and types of risk youth face may influence their relationships with program-assigned mentors and the benefits they derive from these relationships. As you mentioned above, Michael, over two-fifths (43%) of youth participants lived in families facing poverty (<$20,000 annual family income); 23% lived in extreme poverty (<$10,000 annual household income).  Yet, their mentors had very little personal experience with poverty: only 12% had experienced poverty themselves, only about a third had previous experience working with youth who lived in poverty, and ultimately, despite the majority of their mentees facing this challenge, only 29% noted that poverty was a challenge for their mentee.

This “mismatch” between the serious needs of the youth, and the mentors’ lack of experience with and—in some cases—misperceptions of poverty may have had important implications for the matches. For example, a quarter of mentors cited challenges with the youth’s preparation for meetings (e.g., being ready on time, canceling meetings) and another 21% cited challenges with bridging economic differences—both more frequent when mentors were matched with youth high on environmental risk (an indicator which includes poverty).  Similarly, 39% of mentors had unmet expectations regarding the mentee’s family’s needs (again, most frequently reported when youth were high on environmental risk).

The day-to-daCarlaHerreraPhotoy struggles of families facing poverty are overwhelming—with frequent moves, changing phone numbers, busy schedules, etc. Mentoring relationships may be harder to build and sustain when youth’s families face these challenges, particularly when confronting the severe poverty experienced by a significant number of youth in the study. In fact, 38% of mentors reported wanting training to increase their “comfort with the youth’s socioeconomic status and culture.”

These findings suggest that programs should focus more efforts on providing mentors with training and support around poverty—the many faces it can have, and the major implications it can have for match success and for youth’s emotional well-being (almost two fifths of the youth in the study reported high levels of depressive symptoms when they enrolled).  Mentors should be better prepared from the start not only for working with youth facing this challenge more broadly, but also for understanding the circumstances of, and potential challenges of developing a relationship with, the specific youth they will be matched with.


ElPasoBethPicBeth Senger – Director, Big Brothers Big Sisters of El Paso

Because of the prevalence of poverty in our community, El Paso, Texas, and in our neighboring sister-city, Juarez, Mexico we may not run into this barrier as often as many programs do.  Poverty is personally and deeply understood by many of our mentors.  Sometimes, however, this can lead to the blanket opinion that “if I did it {succeeded}, they can too!”  Some mentors offer this in a more “you can do it” encouraging tone, but others are expressing judgment, assuming that poverty is the only adversity the family is facing.  Sadly, parent mental health issues cause more match closures for us than issues with poverty.

So, we do spend time in our initial mentor training coaching mentors on the most common circumstances for our children and/or their family members: poverty, mental health issues, gang involvement, and criminal justice system involvement.  When we have a match identified, we offer further training and insight specific to the child/family with whom we are matching the volunteer.  When we first started our agency, we did home visits with each family and were better able to prepare mentors for what they would encounter, but we do not have the capacity to visit each family’s home any more so we do our best to gather information during the interview and use our knowledge of our neighborhoods to prepare the mentor.

We urge our mentors to respect and recognize that families are in their own place and time and, for the most part, are doing the best they can with the financial, physical, intellectual, and emotional resources they possess.  We urge them to keep activities simple, not to expect to fill every gap in the child’s life,  and to let us know when there are needs for the family we might be able to find community resources to fill.  We explain that by role modeling their own life choices they may get the young person thinking differently about what the future could possibly hold for them.  We try to help them keep their eye on the ball — the friendship with the child.


jrhodesJean Rhodes – Research Director, The Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Great question Michael—and so timely given the widening gulf between wealthy and poor in our country and the consequent growing percentage (22%) of children growing up in poverty. Poverty, particularly when it is early and persistent, is—according to the National Center for Children in Poverty—“the single greatest threat to children’s well-being.” But effective public policies and early experience can help. I do sometimes worry that, rather than challenge the status quo and work toward social justice, I have helped to support it—essentially working to strengthen a formulation that highlights individual solutions over structural change. I’ve wondered if, perhaps my work in this field has merely legitimized mentoring as a substitute for a more equitable distribution of material resources or a concerted youth policy agenda.

It may be pure rationalization, but I remain convinced that this is not the case. There are broader social and political dimensions to our work in this field. First, mentoring programs have provided an accessible context for growing numbers of American high school and college students to perform public service and engage in a world that extends beyond their immediate family and friendship circles. Since early civic participation is the best predictor of lifelong commitment, mentoring can provide an important training ground for future volunteerism.

But, perhaps more importantly, I see benefits of connecting middle-class volunteers/voters with children in poverty. Mentoring provides a lens through which literally millions of middle-class adults have seen the ravages of poverty: decrepit schools with stressed teachers, unsafe neighborhoods, deteriorating housing, and other difficult circumstances. Although many Americans may already know that nearly one in four children in our wealthy democracy lives in poverty, this inequality somehow remains compartmentalized and largely ignored in our day-to-day lives. Yet, deeply connecting with one child in poverty through a mentoring relationship can illuminate its pernicious effects, potentially mobilizing more sustained, authentic action. Support for a coordinated, public response to the out-of-school needs of school-aged youth is more likely to emerge when mentors see how their mentees problems multiply during unsupervised hours. In doing so, mentoring programs are able to develop new constituencies’ for educational and positive youth development programs and policies.

Mentors’ negative stereotypes have also been challenged by the many sources of strength in low-income and minority neighborhoods. When middle class mentors bear witness to the caring that exists in families, religious institutions, and neighborhood organizations, and to the level of commitment, tenacity, and courage that many low-income parents marshal in support of their children, it remains much more difficult to blame the victim. Of course, a mentors’ sensitivity to class and culture is essential, and evidence-based training will help in our efforts to support mentors as they form bridges across income divides.


So what do you think? How big of a challenge is an understanding of poverty, or at least some competence around the associated issues, for your mentors? And how do you try and bridge the gap? Feel free to share your thoughts and training ideas in the comment section below!