Who was your mentor along the way?

How do you move a society forward? This is one of the fundamental questions Dr. Leslie Yaffa has pondered over the years, prompted by her research on mentoring and Jamaican youth. For close to two decades, Dr. Yaffa has devoted her efforts to the effects of mentoring on youth’s self-esteem and potential.

Dr. Yaffa first visited Jamaica in 1996 when she visited as a Master’s student doing her practicum, and late last year, visited Youth Opportunities Unlimited (along with several other volunteer organization such as the YMCA and YWCA) to begin a research project on the effects of mentoring in the Caribbean. Dr. Yaffa lives in Toronto and now works for the online University of New England.

Dr. Yaffa’s rationale for the research (for which she is waiting to hear whether or not she got a grant to continue it, which would involve partnering with YOU) is that mentoring is one of the most effective yet efficient ways of reaching youth. However, there is little to no research in the Caribbean, where YOU is one of the largest mentoring agencies in the region.

“The idea of mentoring is cost effective, first and foremost,” Dr. Yaffa says. “It utilizes the basics of social services like trust, bonding, rapport, advocacy, networking and volunteering service. It gives skills that kids don’t have.”

Not to mention the fact that these interventions, often with youth who have little support or guidance at home, can change a life. “You never know when one interaction and one intervention could change somebody’s path. If we think back, we all have mentors. Think back yourself, and recall that one teacher or coach who said those magic words that bolstered your self-esteem, that made you believe in yourself.”

Perhaps the biggest champion of mentoring is the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization. Here are their vision and mission statements:

Vision: Children around the world realize their potential, creating a better future for themselves, their countries, and the global community.
Mission: To help children around the world reach their potential through professionally supported one-to-one mentoring relationships with measurable impact.

BBBS research shows that mentoring has real, tangible results: one study found that youth in mentoring relationships are 46 % less likely to start using drugs and 27% less likely to use alcohol. They are also shown to stay in school and earn better academic results.

President Barack Obama also urged citizens to get involved in mentoring in this year’s State of the Union address:

Mentors help children build confidence, gain knowledge, and develop the strength of character to succeed inside and outside of the classroom. They are relatives, teachers, coaches, ministers, and neighbors. Anyone can be a mentor, and every child should have the chance to be a mentee. Young people with mentors have better attendance in school, higher self-esteem, a greater chance of pursuing higher education, and a reduced risk of substance abuse. That is why my Administration is creating new opportunities to give back — from expanding national service, promoting responsible fatherhood, and challenging businesses to grow their mentoring activities, to First Lady Michelle Obama’s mentoring initiative, which pairs local high school girls with powerful role models.”

But back to Dr. Yaffa. She founded the Walk Good Foundation, which

conducts research on child and adolescent program development and evaluation in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean. Advocacy is a key component to any research that will become practice, and the challenge continues to make sure that networks, collaborations, communities and children and adolescents are continually involved in the evolution of programming.  The roots of Jamaica and the Caribbean are built on a collectivist idea, if any research is to succeed it is important to collaborate and embrace the community as a partner.

The goal of the foundation is to create a bridge from theory (research) to practice.  At the same time creating alternative programming for children and adolescents in Jamaica and Caribbean wide.

Specific to Jamaica, Dr. Yaffa envisions an informal sort of mentoring taking place in the inner-city communities. Rather than relying on people such as Usain Bolt or Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce as mentors, why not recruit more accessible youth, those who live in the communities, who have made mistakes and are able to advise their younger peers about the realities they both face, Dr. Yaffa wonders. She tried this model, with success, before in communities such as Waterhouse.

“We used the model of taking people from the neighbourhoods, and people asked why are we using kids from the streets?” she says. “”But they encourage education and to strive higher, and these are the mentors they see everyday. People like Usain Bolt are not attainable. If you have kids showing ‘I did not do it 100 per cent correctly, you can still do it correctly’, that works. In Waterhouse, we used younger kids and older kids from streets. We had informal conversations and this drew kids in who were standing in streets. Literally, we sat in streets and we brought a different topic every week. It works because people want somewhere to go. They want to belong.”

Which brings Dr. Yaffa back to her original question: how do you move a society forward? How do you not lose the youth to the streets, to a life of crime or poverty? Her research is showing that mentoring works by providing someone to talk to, someone to emulate, to be accountable to, to provide guidance and structure and to simply provide love.

Hopefully her research project will be approved and she will ultimately have raw data to back up what most of us intuitively know: mentoring, listening, simply spending time with someone who otherwise does not experience these basic human necessities, is perhaps the most soothing balm to an ailing soul.

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