Mentoring programs have helped to establish structure and guidance for youth for decades. Serving to provide fundamental building blocks for character and success, mentors act as role models and help steer youth towards a lifetime of opportunity and achievement. The importance of youth mentoring programs continues and organizations are meeting kids right where they are.
According to statistics, one in three children will grow up without a mentor. With 31 percent of Detroiters being under the age of 18, the opportunity for mentorship is great. Across the city, several programs catering to young men and women have been established and have provided Detroit’s youth, in some cases, a second chance.
Friends of the Children intentionally targets at-risk youth and kids who may be facing grave adversity. Originally based in Oregon, the organization reached Detroit just over a year ago and has established roots in the city and is lending a hand to Detroit youth.
“I think there are two different categories. For one, the children we serve, because a lot of them have been affected by trauma, it’s important for them to have a relationship with a caring adult. It’s also transferable to children who do live in stable homes,” says Nicole McKinney, executive director of Friend of the Children. “Another category is for Black children who are enrolled in a predominantly white institution. It’s important to have mentors who look like you.”
In Black communities, economics create barriers in education, access and, in many cases, success. Schools offering mentoring programs sometimes are first to see funding cut for extracurricular activities. Organizations that are independently run saw a dip in attendance. IMAGINE Mentoring, a Detroit-based program, had 70 girls during its peak in 2020. Now, standing at just 15 girls, the organization is recovering from the pandemic.
“COVID hit and we started going virtual and of course the virtual fallout has been an extreme challenge for the kids because they don’t want to be on the computer. With COVID, I couldn’t get them to come in,” says Latonya Garth, founder of IMAGINE Mentoring Program.
With more than 10 years invested into Detroit youth, the IMAGINE Mentoring Program began as a group for adolescent girls. Rapidly expanding to include a wider age range, the organization grew.
“IMAGINE has been my sanity. It is an organization that I founded based on seeing young people who have experienced trauma. At the time I was experiencing adversity myself and that was my way to serve my way out,” says Garth. “It started as a girl’s group with the Detroit Job Corp Center. I started with five to ten girls and then all of a sudden it got bigger and bigger.”
IMPACT, the male-based mentorship program within IMAGINE, received its name after a roll-over car accident with a young Black teen where he fled the scene of the accident. The program is intended to affect significant change in young Black men across Detroit. However, taking a personal hit during the pandemic, IMPACT lost its leader and head male mentor due to the coronavirus. Opening the door for another version of mentoring in helping to steer the emotions of the young, the founder decided to take a step back and allow healing to take place.
“I ended up recruiting a male mentor to lead the IMPACT piece. Unfortunately, we lost him to COVID last year and it was devastating. I couldn’t do it, so I put IMPACT on the shelf,” says Garth. “I know he would want me to keep going and continue mentoring the young men.”
Creating lifelong bonds, mentoring programs help develop social and practical skills giving youth the tools needed to navigate life and increasing the chance mentees will grow to become leaders. MENTOR National reports 55 percent of young adults who are mentored are more likely to go to college.
“Everyone needs a mentor in their lives. You’re never too old for a mentor. Mentoring allows you to learn from others and benefits both the mentor and the mentee because the mentor is able to share a piece of them[self] and pay it forward and a child benefits from it. The child will grow and hopefully pay it forward in the future,” says McKinney.
For a lot of children, seeing is believing and mentorship allows youth to see an alternative to current circumstances. While education, career and accolades can make for a good mentor, the quality of a mentor is measured in their life experiences and the need of each child.
“When I recruit my mentors, I always tell them ‘You can have educational experience or none at all. I just need you to have life experience.’ If you can pour into these kids and have the heart to serve, I need you. I don’t discriminate. I don’t care what color you are, what your background is, I need people with life experience,” says Garth.