Many of us have been fortunate to provide our children with a world of opportunity. They have attended well-funded public schools or select independent schools that have developed their interests and talents. They have been exposed to the arts, sports and science fairs. They have had advanced placement courses, trips abroad and foreign language instruction since elementary school. Going to college is a given in their lives and from the time when they are very young, there is great excitement about what they will be when they grow up. They are raised confidently knowing that there are endless opportunities available to them, and having a committed network of parents, teachers and other adult role models is a big part of their life experience.
But this is not the case for children raised in poverty. They attend under-resourced schools that often are defined by violence and dysfunction rather than achievement and hope. They are required to read very little, they are not taught to think critically, they have minimal homework, there is no academic rigor, books are rare and they are not exposed to art, music or sports in any meaningful way. Their window into the world of opportunity is closed. It is possible that no one in their families has a college degree or even graduated from high school.
While we wait for systems to change so they provide equality of education to all children, each one of us must look beyond our own children and our own worlds and take responsibility for other young people as they come of age. The old adage "It takes a village" has become a national imperative as we strive to create educational and employment opportunities for the next generation.
While the term "mentoring" has been overused to the point of dilution, the act of truly mentoring a teenager living in poverty is a powerful gift. Mentors can help young students create a vision for their future and understand what they need to do to reach their goals and their full potential. Mentors provide opportunities for academic and personal growth. They can form the social and professional networks young people need to navigate the path to college and careers in the 21st century workforce.
But, to have an impact, the mentoring relationship must be deep and long-term. To be effective, the relationship must begin while a student is a young teenager and continue through college. At Philadelphia Futures we have seen first-hand the success and power of these relationships. As a non-profit organization that provides Philadelphia's low-income, first-generation-to-college students with the tools, resources and opportunities necessary for admission to and success in college, matching our students with a caring and committed adult mentor has been a hallmark of our programming for nearly 25 years. These relationships have a profound impact on students' ability to obtain their degrees, start careers and become economically self-sufficient.
Good mentors know that a successful relationship requires work, dedication and time. That is, doing everything from taking a student on college visits to exposing her to a range of career opportunities; from seeing a baseball game together to taking him to visit a museum. It is having regular contact, which fosters open and candid communication. Mentors are good listeners, thoughtful advice givers and -- perhaps most important -- compelling advocates for their mentees.
A mentor must bring a generosity of spirit to the process that will sustain the many challenges along the way. They must be caring, consistent and joyful in their approach. A mentor must be willing to do for a stranger's child what they would do for their own.