Sarah Landis, Hope House Program Staff
Mentoring can happen in many ways and make a real difference. Whether it’s informally playing basketball with a neighborhood kid at the local rec center or finding an organization to volunteer for, it can be an effective method for connecting with a younger generation.
At Hope House, our Mentoring Program is strategic and intentional. First, we are diligent in who we match as a mentor to the teen moms we serve. Our subsequent training includes an overview of common dynamics found in generational poverty, scenarios mentors may come across when working with our teen moms and the typical phases of a mentoring relationship.
The following is an in-depth look at what is covered in our mentor training.
The majority of youth in mentoring programs in the U.S. come from a documented cycle known as Generational Poverty. This term was coined by Dr. Ruby Payne in Bridges Out of Poverty and refers to families that have lived in poverty for at least two generations. Payne discusses the hidden rules among today’s social classes and how they affect those struggling to become self-sufficient and independent of government assistance. Payne has also created a chart that is an effective tool for outlining the stark differences between poverty, middle class, and wealth.
The vast majority of our teen moms were born into generational poverty, and that is where they are most comfortable. There are several problems associated with this type of complacency — especially since our society operates according to the middle class mind set.
We do not expect our teen moms to completely switch from the poverty mindset to the middle class mindset; instead we help them become bilingual in both social class languages. Their families will most likely remain in poverty, but if our teen moms are going to reach self-sufficiency, they must learn to understand middle class thinking.
This is where our mentors come in. We train them on the hidden rules of social classes so they can strategically work with their teen mom and show them how the middle class works. Most of our girls feel like they are born into a caste system they cannot escape. Our mentors show them that a middle class life is obtainable.
During training we initially discuss potential situations our mentors may come across, and we ask them how they would handle each scenario. This exercise is always thought provoking because it illuminates circumstances that are outside of the norm for most of our mentors.
An example of a possible scenario follows: You have been meeting with your teen mom for about three months, and she has been taking steps towards self-sufficiency. The relationship was going well, but over the last few weeks she has stopped meeting with you on a regular basis. After three weeks of no contact, you finally hear from her and she wants you to give her a ride. What do you do?
After going over the scenarios, we have found it’s important to empower our mentors by encouraging their ideas on how they would handle themselves in such situations. There are no black and white answers, but it is helpful to point out the best way to handle certain scenarios during training instead of waiting until it’s an actual issue. Knowledge is power when it comes to preparing mentors for unforeseen circumstances.
It is also imperative to point out the typical phases of a mentoring relationship. As a mentor, it will seem like a roller coaster ride at times, especially when dealing with a teenager. The phases we refer to are adapted from Growth Cycles of a Match by Big Brothers and Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities.
At the beginning of the relationship, we stress to our mentors that it is important to follow through with scheduled meetings, be willing to listen, be as non-judgmental as possible, and be reasonably open and honest.
The second phase involves building trust, achieved by being patient and reliable, expecting setbacks, and showing your teen mom you you believe in her.
The third phase is probably the hardest because it focuses on testing the relationship. The teen mom will most likely push back at some point because she is starting to trust, which is often frightening for her as she considers opening up to another person. There is bound to be resistance, but the mentor should not take it personally; instead the mentor should reinforce limits, continue to treat the teen mom with respect, and never stop encouraging her to succeed.
The fourth and final step is what I call the bittersweet phase. This is where independence increases, which is exciting because that means the mentor is succeeding. However, it can also be difficult because the teen mom may not need the mentor’s guidance as much at this point. I always encourage our mentors to continue supporting their teen mom and offering direction when necessary.
This is the ideal way to naturally end an official mentoring relationship; by this time, the teen mom has likely become like extended family to the mentor and therefore their time together will most likely never truly be over. The relationship truly can have a lifelong impact.
“Bringing out the Best in Ourselves”
Leslie is a Hope House mentor who earned her teen mom’s trust by offering Cheri consistency and nonjudgmental support throughout their growing relationship.
“I thought that mentoring would be a great way to be able to give back to young women (and help them) to achieve their personal goals,” says Leslie.
Leslie also understands both the challenges and the rewards of wading into a disadvantaged teen mom’s life.
“The worlds we are from are so different, anything from booking a plane ticket to filling out an application can really throw her off course, and I don’t know how to navigate the TANF system or buy food using WIC” says Leslie. “But we’ve fallen into a great relationship where we help each other understand each other’s lives and help one another bring out the best in ourselves.”
Leslie’s insight speaks to a primary goal of our mentoring program, where both parties stretch, grow and are ultimately blessed.