Building Relationships Key to Youth Success, Say Conference Panelists

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WASHINGTON — Kevin Washington, president and CEO of the YMCA of the USA, loves to see family and friends pack a preschool graduation to support their loved ones.

But he always reminds them to show up a decade down the line, when a young person reaches the teenage years and needs extra support to make the transition into adulthood.

Kevin Washington

Kevin Washington

“They will not ask for support, but they need it desperately,” he said Tuesday during the 2016 Community Convention held by America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit that tracks high school graduation rates.

Communities too often lack the tight-knit connections that can help guide young people through adolescence, especially compared with decades ago, Washington said.

“That’s changed remarkably. We don’t know each other anymore,” he said.

To help address that deficit, the YMCA and other community-based organizations are looking for the best ways to ensure caring adults, regardless of whether they’re relatives, are present for young people, speakers at the conference said.

America’s Promise released research that showed a young person’s proximity to adults in a community can increase the likelihood they will graduate from high school.

When researchers examined the ratio of adults ages 25 and older to school-aged youth in metropolitan areas across the United States, they found that for every seven additional adults in a neighborhood, one fewer young person leaves school.

Jonathan Zaff

Jonathan Zaff

“Young people need an array of social supports to get on and stay on a positive educational course. Without a sufficient number of adults in a community, young people might not have access to these supports,” said Jonathan Zaff, executive director of the Center for Promise and lead author of the brief, in a news release. “Supportive relationships — with mentors, teachers, coaches, faith leaders, other school and nonprofit staff — constitute a web of support that can keep young people engaged in school and connected to their communities.”

Role for mentors

One key way to encourage more adult involvement in youth’s lives is to expand the use of mentors, said practitioners and advocates at the conference.

David Shapiro

David Shapiro

David Shapiro, president and CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, said there’s increasing awareness that mentoring can go beyond an important relationship for a single young person’s development. The practice also can be a strategy to address serious problems for youth, such as poor school attendance or workforce development.

As a result, communities are increasingly asking pointed questions about which kids and which outcomes programs can support. And while financial support has increased over the years for mentoring, funders still are trying to figure out exactly if and how to give, meaning organizations must make their case for the value of caring adults in young people’s lives, he said.

“We need to keep calling to them that you can invest in relationships,” he said.

Ultimately, mentorship isn’t just a way to support one child or teenager, but a way to build a stronger community, said Nick Greer, managing director of programs at Thread, a Baltimore program that connects underperforming city high school students with a network of volunteers,  referred to as a family, who stay by a student’s side for years.

The job of a mentor isn’t to “save” a child but to learn alongside them about how to navigate the difficulties a youth faces, he added.

“Their ability to thrive is bound up in their neighbor’s ability to thrive,” Greer said.