Guest opinion: In an age of social distance, youth need mentors more than ever
We are calling upon you all, members of Utah’s community, to reach out to us or another nonprofits to support, elevate and mentor our most critical resource — Utah’s children.
Utah youth, ages 6 to 18, have now learned that the 2019-20 academic year will finish remotely. That is hard to hear. Being away from a normal routine and friends is challenging for all youth. It is difficult to keep spirits up and forge ahead. It can, however, be especially challenging for youth who were already facing many challenges. For the youth we serve, this can mean experiencing poverty, foster care and depressive symptoms, among many other challenges.
In 2018, 53,861 Utah families with children were living in intergenerational poverty. In 2019, nearly 5,000 youth in Utah were living in kinship or foster care settings. Depressive symptoms among Utah youth are so common that suicide is the No. 1 cause of death among youth ages 11 to 17. In this time of isolation and economic recession, these challenges will become more frequent and more severe. Now, more than ever, our young people need someone in their corner — someone to listen and offer support. They need mentors, and that is why we need you.
We know that mentors matter, because we see situations each day like Jane’s (not her real name). When Jane was 12, her mom died and she was placed with her grandmother. Her grandmother realized she needed some help and reached out to Big Brothers Big Sisters. Jane was matched with her Big Sister, Laura (not her real name). Jane and Laura developed a strong mentoring relationship and friendship.
About a year later when Jane’s grandmother was not able to care for her, Laura helped Jane with the transition to her first foster family ... and the 24 other placements during the next six years. Jane just turned 18, and Laura is the only stable adult support she’s had in these ever-important formative years. Now Laura is supporting Jane’s dream to get her driver’s license and helping her prepare to enroll in college classes this fall. Jane wants to become a dental hygienist. Jane and Laura both know that they will be “sisters” forever.
Right now, as we are social distancing, our mentors and programs are not meeting face-to-face with youth. We do, however, connect with them virtually, assess their needs and the needs of their families and drop off food, books and much-needed supplies. Some days, the most important thing we do is listen. The academic and personal disruptions these youth and families are experiencing are intense. For children in particularly vulnerable circumstances — those without parents or family close by — the role of mentors is critical. Research on mentoring shows that the most effective element of a strong mentoring relationship can be reducing depressive symptoms in the mentee youth.
Now, more than ever before, our youth and families with multiple risk factors need the community to support, connect, and elevate them. Many young people desire a mentor, as Jane has. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah, The First Star Academy for Foster Youth and Utah’s recently launched Friends of the Children are but a few organizations in our community that are deploying and adapting proactive strategies along the continuum of mentoring. In so doing, they make an effort to adapt to the impacts of COVID-19 and to continue to break cycles of intergenerational poverty.
We are partners in this work, and we are calling upon you all, members of Utah’s community, to reach out to us or another nonprofits to support, elevate and mentor our most critical resource — Utah’s children. Now, more than ever before, we need your time, talent, and treasure.
Nancy Winemiller-Basinger is the president & CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah, a one-to-one mentoring organization that, with the help of more than 12,000 volunteer mentors, has been working to defend the potential of Utah kids for the past 42 years. BBBSU.org.
Alexa Hudson is the director of the University of Utah First Star Academy, an organization that strives to improve the educational outcomes for youth in foster care through long-term college-preparatory programming. Firststar.org
Sandi Pershing is the executive director of Friends of the Children Utah, an organization with 27 years of proven experience that is new to Utah, which empowers youth who are facing the greatest obstacles through relationships with professional mentors — 12-plus years, no matter what. Friendsofthechildren.org