The average person can feel overwhelmed by the problems facing our country and planet. It is easy to conclude, "What can I do?" I sometimes suffer from similar feelings of frustration, but it is at those moments that I take encouragement from a passage in the Talmud which has always held great meaning for me: "The person who saves one life, it is as if he or she saves the entire world."
January is National Mentoring Month, and volunteering to serve as a mentor is one way to save a life. Spectrum Youth and Family Services, where I serve as executive director, has a mentoring program where adult volunteers are matched with teenagers who would benefit from such a relationship. When I recruit mentors, I always emphasize that we are not asking the mentor to be the social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist or therapist. We are asking him or her to be a stable, reliable, positive role model in the child's life, something many of them need more than anything else.
We ask our mentors to make a one year commitment for at least one hour per week. We try to match mentors and mentees with similar interests. Typical mentor activities include bowling together, going to the movies, pizza and ice cream, things like that. (Although one mentor I know had her professional pilot friend take both of them up in a Cessna aircraft!) These weekly interactions can be priceless to a youth.
You may be thinking, "I love the idea, but I don't have the time." Yet some of the mentors I know are the busiest people on earth: salesman who travels out of town two days per week -- he has two children, a working wife and coaches soccer. Other mentors include: One of the most successful commercial real estate brokers in the state; a woman who works at a high-power, high-pressure investment firm; an executive director of a nonprofit organization who also has two daughters of his own.
Through my work in the nonprofit world over 30 years, I have informally mentored many youth, but this past year I decided to become a formal mentor to an 8-year-old boy. I have known Sharmarke since he was age 1, when he arrived in the U.S. with his mother and four siblings from a refugee camp in Kenya. My wife and I served as a host family for them. Through Spectrum and the Burlington Boys and Girls Club we found mentors for all five children. When Sharmarke needed a new mentor, he said to me "How about you Mark?" It was tempting to say "no" (I have two sons, work more than 40 hours per week, coach little league baseball, sing in a gospel choir and teach Sunday School) but I didn't have the heart to turn him down.
So I am Sharmarke's mentor, and thankfully one of my sons is his age, and the three of us have a blast together, going mountain biking on Vermont's dirt trails, fishing on Lake Champlain, going to University of Vermont hockey games, McDonald's, pizza, ice cream. And I've gotten involved in his education, going over flash cards with him and reading books recommended by his teacher. His face lights up when I show up at his apartment to take him out, but the truth is that I get as much enjoyment out of the mentoring relationship as he does.
I think every adult should consider becoming a mentor. National data shows that those youth paired with mentors are 46 percent less likely than peers to begin using illegal drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin drinking, and 52 percent less likely to skip school. And there are literally thousands of organizations in this country similar to Spectrum or the Boys and Girls Club that sponsor mentoring programs and will provide you with training and support. Do it, because there are so many young people out there who need you. As the late founder of the Search Institute, Peter Benson, used to say, "If you're breathing, you're on the team."
We need you on the team. Be a mentor. Save the world.