- by Mary K. Levie
Anyone can be a youth mentor, says Emily Dupree, mentor liaison for the newly created Governor’s Mentoring Initiative, a program created by Governor Bredesen in partnership with Youth Villages.
“A lot of people think, ‘I don’t have anything to offer; I wouldn’t make a good mentor; I’m not a role model’,” says Dupree. “Every single person has something to offer, and all you’re doing is just being a friend to this person.”
The Governor’s Mentoring Initiative was created to provide teenagers in foster care with a positive influence at a challenging point in their lives. The program also provides a rewarding opportunity for people wanting to make a significant impact on the trajectory of a teenager’s life.
Mentors are required to spend a minimum of four hours a month with their teen, a requirement that Dupree says is frequently exceeded. There is no obligatory contract for the length of the mentor relationship.
“Governor Bredesen was hoping this would be a lifelong relationship, and that’s why he didn’t want to say you have to do this for a year or two years, hoping that the mentors will bond with the teen no matter where the teen goes,” says Dupree.
When teenagers in foster care turn 18 they can sign themselves out of state custody and exit the system, so having a mentor at this point could prove crucial in a successful transition to life on their own. The program has several children about to turn 18, so they will soon be able to measure if this desired outcome occurs.
The application process for mentor candidates involves checking employment history, verifying three references, a background check, sex offender and felony offender check, and fingerprints. The fingerprints take the longest to process, as those are done through the Governor’s office, making the time from application to approval about two to four weeks. After the candidate is approved they are brought in for an interview and required to attend a 3 hour training session where all aspects of the mentoring process are covered, including the trust issues Dupree says lot of the teens have developed.
“Right when they get close to someone, they move to another place,” says Dupree. “That’s the same thing with the mentoring relationship. They may not trust you right off the bat; they may not open up. It may take several visits for the child to open up.”
In the training session the mentors are taught not to take the child’s behavior personally, be it shyness or even sometimes hostility. Mentors are trained to know what causes the behavior, how to deal with it, and hopefully move beyond it, Dupree says. She points out that about 95% of the over 100 current mentoring relationships are going well with no problems, and that teens are volunteer participants in the program.
The teenagers are interviewed before being matched with a mentor in an effort to have the most compatible match possible. Dupree checks in with the mentors on a weekly basis, and is always available to answer questions and resolve any problems that arise.
“This is supposed to be fun for the child and the mentor,” says Dupree. “If it’s not, then we find that out and work out the kinks.”
To learn more about joining the Governor’s Mentoring Initiative, call Emily Dupree, 251-4813 or visit their website www.tn.gov/mentoring.