Mentorship For Success: It's Not What The 'What' Is

08/12/2011 07:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2011
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Originally published on, a digital information service surfacing emerging stories in news, entertainment, art and culture; powered by award-winning journalists. A version of this report also aired on NPR's All Things Considered.

By: Nishat Kurwa

One of the most transformative aspects of Alameda County's EMT training program for juvenile offenders has little to do with the medical portion of the course.

Given the economic slump, it's understandable that the employment outcomes of the Bay EMT and EMS Corps programs are the headline-grabbers. But you don't get very far into conversations with the adults running those programs before they attribute much of their success with incarcerated youth to the holistic mentoring that's essential to programmatic infrastructure.

Along with Valerie Street, EMS Corps Program Manager Mike Gibson is one of the mentors at Camp Sweeney, the low-security residential facility that offers EMS Corps training to young offenders.

When Gibson first began working at the camp, participants were only taking the first responder courses - no mentoring component included. "We had some challenges with the young people because they came pretty much from the streets," he said. "They were angry, because they're incarcerated, they have to do their time; they're trying to adjust to their environment. They went through the first responder class, but they dropped out.  What was missing was the cognitive stuff. We had to change their attitude."

As Gibson talked about the mentoring and male development work he and Street do to build up the young men's self-esteem, he referred to an "11-week life coaching journey." It's a phrase that might otherwise smack of self-help preciousness, but from Gibson, it sounds pragmatic, especially when he talks about the results. "We've provided the training to more than 100 young males over last two years," he said. "Ninety-five percent have gotten even their high school diploma or their GED, and I know the camp has it mandatory to go to school, but these young people were taking it more seriously than they would be having not coming through a class like ours."

Years ago, Gibson was himself an incarcerated youth; the young men in the program accord him a trust that doesn't come easy from a population that's wary of adults who aren't always of the "available-anytime-and-really-mean-it" variety. Sometimes Gibson takes phone calls in the middle of the night. He also attends court dates with his students, helping them to clear their juvenile records.

Gibson described one young man in the class who was visibly angry, with a lot of personal problems, but who exuded silent power. One day, he told the young man, "Ya'll working out? Let's see what ya'll got."

He joined them in the weight room on his off day, giving them tips on proper form. "They said, 'You know Mike, you are the first person to come down here and work out with us.' I know what that meant to them. I talked to (the stewing young man) and said, 'You're very quiet, very observant. I think you really have a strong ability to command the room.' He thought he was just angry and upset." Gibson said the interaction led to a visible shift in the student's behavior in class. "Before, he would sit with his arms crossed. Now he was doing the actual homework assignments we gave him."

Gibson said to contextualize the life coaching within the first responder training program, he and Street work with the young men to create "life plans," and urge them to re-connect with their families on home visits, to "repair the relationship or whatever the breakdown of the family that you experienced.  We want you to start taking responsibility for your part, not only for your family, but your community as a whole."

Gibson said though it would be ideal if the young people emerge from the training and pursue EMT careers, the overarching goal of his mentorship is to make them feel prepared for whatever field interests them. "We like to say that it's not what the 'what' is. They write their own plan in life coaching. So by the time they figure out what it is that they want to do with themselves,  then they start executing the plan they put down on paper. We just sort of help guide them along."

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