On mentoring: The true story of Roman and David

“Be someone who matters to someone who matters.”

As I searched for quotes or tidbits to open my pitch on mentoring, this slogan for National Mentoring Month stuck out.

The statement is simple, and it's true. Not much different, really, from mentoring itself. And there's no better time to talk about mentoring than January, which is designated as National Mentoring Month to promote youth mentoring in the United States.

To show how mentoring works, let's use the true story of Roman Gray and David Killeen.

As a sophomore in Stratford High School, Roman began his mentoring relationship with David, who then was the Stratford Town Planner. Roman was in need of a trusting friendship with a caring adult; David was a busy professional man who was willing to carve time from his day to mentor a young person. Once paired, the two met regularly through Stratford's school-based mentoring program until Roman graduated from high school. His mentor, David, attended his graduation.

Roman next enrolled in the University of New Haven. He and David maintained their mentoring relationship. Roman graduated from the University of New Haven with a degree in criminal justice. He and David continued their mentoring relationship. Roman applied for and was accepted to the Connecticut State Police Academy. When Roman graduated in December, his mentor, David, took the day off from work to attend the ceremony.

While Roman and David continue their mentoring relationship, Roman now also mentors high school students. The gift of time, listening and guidance that David gave to Roman is being paid forward. What Roman was given, he now gives to others.

Roman and David shared what's called a “formal” mentoring relationship, where an organization like the Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers & Big Sisters or, in this case, the Board of Education pairs a young person in need with a suitable adult. But there are also the so-called “informal” mentors who come into the life of a youth and naturally develop an informal mentoring relationship. These are the friends of the family, teachers and coaches.

The idea is simple: Be a leader, trusted advisor, supporter, guide, encourager and wise companion to a young person.

Your investment is minimal: In whatever time you can spare, bring yourself to a mentoring relationship with a young person. Beyond undergoing a background check and checking your calendar, there are few demands.

The impact is profound: A 2013 nationally representative survey of more than 1,100 young people conducted by the National Mentoring Partnership found that at-risk youth with mentors were more likely to enroll in and graduate from college than their peers without mentors.

Those with mentors also were more likely to participate regularly in sports or extracurricular activities, more likely to hold leadership positions in sports, clubs, school council and the like; and more likely to volunteer regularly in their communities than their at-risk peers who didn't have a mentoring relationship in their lives.

And the need is huge. The National Mentoring Partnership estimates that 16 million youth nationwide — including nine million at-risk youth — will reach age 19 without having benefit of a mentor. In Connecticut, the Governor's Prevention Partnership seeks to close the gap for some 190,000 young people in need of a strong link with a caring adult.

Since 2011, I've had the pleasure of participating in the Stratford school-based mentoring program.

Once a week during the school year, at a mutually agreed upon time that doesn't interfere with the student's school day, I meet with a mentee during school hours. So far, I've developed mentoring relationships with three students.

Each young woman has been a pleasure to meet and get to know. Each one has been different, and each special in her own way. Each one has faced issues growing up that I never had to endure.

I wasn't sure I was up to the challenge. Before getting to know each mentee, I worried that we would have nothing in common, that I was too “seasoned” for her to relate to, that she would yawn and stare speechless at me for 40 minutes, that I would say something wrong or offensive. But these self-centered concerns dissolved as I realized my presence and my effort was sufficient.

If school-based programs don't work for you, there are plenty of other options. For example, the ACE Program occurs after school hours for students interested in careers in architecture, construction and engineering. And an Electronic Mentoring Program securely and safely connects students electronically with professional mentors who are employed at local and national companies.

As a mentor, I believe I'm a positive influence on my young friends. What I didn't anticipate was the impact they would have upon me.

When I leave my weekly mentoring session, I always return to work or home feeling good about myself. Mentoring has reminded me to listen more closely, and to be mature and gentle in my responses. Being a mentor has made me more compassionate and more grateful. It has taught me that my presence matters, even when I don't think I've said a thing useful or wise. As adults, we plant many good seeds that we may not see take root.

Many communities and organizations have thriving mentoring programs. Some helpful websites to get acquainted with mentoring are: www.unitedwaycfc.org/mentoring-institute; www.preventionworksct.org; and www.nationalmentoringmonth.org.

At this time when our youth need us so badly, please consider being someone who matters to someone who matters.