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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mentoring: An Investment with Unlimited Potential

By Dr. Andrew M. Mecca

The Reality
For more than 10 million kids in America today: Nobody’s home. Decades of soaring divorce rates, broken families and illegitimate births have left kids without any grown-ups to help them grow up. There are no caring adults and no adult role models in their lives.

The result is the epidemic increase in the four major social ills confronting our youth: educational failure, drug and alcohol abuse, gang involvement and teen pregnancy – all symptoms of kids who feel isolated and hopeless. Nothing makes kids more vulnerable than suffering from the wounds of isolation.

The cost to our society of these four social epidemics is staggering…an estimated $500 billion per year.

But there is a proven antidote to these plagues which has a powerful cost/benefit payback: Mentoring.

The Challenge
As an example, consider California (over 36 million residents representing some 12% of the total U.S. population) where there are an estimated 420,000 gang members (DOJ), more than 100,000 youths in the state Juvenile Justice System and an inner-city high school dropout rate in Los Angeles as high as 58%:

- The California Dropout Research Project (report dated 2-27-08) estimates that each annual wave of school dropouts costs the state $46.4 billion over the dropouts’ lifetimes (e.g., lost employment, crime, welfare, etc.).

- The State of California’s 2007-8 Budget provided for $11,935 in spending per K-12 student (inclusive of federal, state and local sources); the same budget provided the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation $35,587 in spending per inmate in the state prison system.

- The cost to house a single ward of the state in the California Division of Juvenile Justice is $250,000 a year (California Department of Finance, June 2008).

Add to that the costs of drug and alcohol abuse, gang activity and teen pregnancy and it is not unreasonable to extrapolate the cost of these four social epidemics for the entire U.S. as totaling $500 billion or more annually.

A Solution
We have spent close to a trillion dollars of federal, state and private funds over the past four decades attempting to mitigate these problems. All the well-intended government-funded and private programs, slogans (“Just Say No”) and pamphlets have had limited success.

In my professional experience of more than 40 years in the fields of health, substance abuse and education, I found the most potent youth development strategy to be “mentoring”. Scores of studies have documented the fact that when a child has a mentor, the four youth social epidemics and their related consequences are significantly ameliorated.

The core element of the mentoring is to develop a caring relationship with a youth built upon trust. That lays the foundation to discover from genuine and active listening what that unique individual’s aspirations are -- and to coach and support him/her on the path to success.

The Cost/Benefit
The positive impact of mentoring on youth behavior is compelling.

California Mentor Foundation, in partnership with the California-based youth program Friday Night Live, recently completed its fourth in-depth survey of mentoring programs in the state over the past ten years (results released September 2008). The scope of the survey covered over 240 mentoring programs with more than 28,000 mentor-youth matches.

Highlights from the survey demonstrate that of the youth who have had mentors:
- 97.2% remained in school
- 95.7% avoided alcohol and illicit drug use
- 95.9% were not involved in gangs and/or violence
- 99.1% were not parties in a pregnancyThese results are consistent with the three previous surveys.

In stark contrast to the amounts of dollars spent per individual in our correctional and rehabilitation institutions cited above, the cost of mentoring programs (including recruiting, screening and training) range from $500-$1500 per youth, or a median of approximately $1000.

Even without accounting for all the “upside” benefits of these individuals becoming productive contributing members of society (i.e., creating positive economic value), the reduction in the costs of the negative activities provides a payback of $50-$100 per dollar invested in mentoring. On a larger scale, using the median program cost of $1000, an investment of $1 billion in mentoring could serve 1 million youth, with an expected $50 billion to $100 billion reduction in the costs from avoided negative behavior.

Opportunity
We know, especially when all else has failed, nothing short of our human personal engagement will help kids become vital members of society.

Mentoring -- the dynamic, active, ongoing engagement of a significant adult in the life of a searching youth -- is the most timely and viable interaction that will elevate the young person from merely surviving into a whole new world of thriving.

There are millions of kids today wanting – and needing – a mentor.

To make a difference by inspiring a young person to aspire to become all they can be is one of the richest and most rewarding experiences in life. And who knows…someday one of them may discover a cure for cancer or develop a renewable energy technology.

Let’s help change America and its future – one child at a time. It’s an investment with unlimited potential...