Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.—Like many youth-serving agencies, Children’s Village struggles to recruit and keep qualified mentors to guide its troubled kids. But mentor Carl Johnson has been showing up every day for four years, and it’s no mystery why.
Mentoring is his job.
As the nation struggles to fulfill calls by its past several presidents to recruit a “million mentors,” agencies such as Children’s Village, Friends of the Children in Oregon and the Mentor Center in Nebraska are among the few that pay adults to fill that role. From such efforts, “encouraging track records are beginning to emerge,” said a report issued in June by Public/Private Ventures (P/PV). Although the evidence is admittedly limited, P/PV believes there’s enough to consider paid mentoring “a strategy with abundant potential.”
The evidence also reveals difficulties in the approach, while the approach itself raises some fundamental questions for youth work – such as, “What’s a mentor?”
“As soon as you start paying mentors, is it truly mentoring, or has it moved into some paraprofessional category?” asks Mark Fulop, director of the National Mentoring Center, based in Portland, Ore. The salaried mentor tends to resemble not so much a volunteer mentor as a combination case worker/street worker whose tasks include mentoring.
Paying mentors is “a very sticky issue,” says Andrea Taylor, developer of Across Ages, a widely replicated drug prevention program that has experimented with mentor salaries and now pays only stipends to cover expenses. She notes that a recent grant announcement from the U.S. Department of Education for mentoring programs “stated unequivocally that you are not permitted to compensate the mentors in any way. Not even transportation costs. Nothing.”
Some youth program directors think paying mentors is worth the added cost. One of them is David Allen, who directed a paid mentor experiment in Portland, Ore., called Project Youth Connect (PYC), which was funded by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Allen echoes the experiences of many administrators who’ve tried to recruit and retain volunteer mentors:
“It has just been so difficult to keep anybody consistent, anybody showing up on a regular basis. They’re gung-ho for the first week or two, and the relationship sort of fizzles out.”
“Especially with at-risk kids,” he adds, “once they open themselves up, [then] you don’t come through, the kids are quick to say, ‘It’s just somebody else who came into my life and hopped right out.’ We just went to the philosophy that we have to pay people.” His agency, Self-Enhancement Inc., still does, even though funding for PYC has ended.
While many programs have succeeded in creating long-term relationships between volunteer mentors and youth – such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America – in many communities the need exceeds the supply. At-risk youth, particularly those from the foster care or juvenile justice systems, typically require more time, expertise and emotional commitment than most volunteers can muster.
“The needs of the youth are too great and the demands on the counselor too many for anyone other than a paid professional to reasonably be expected to do this kind of work day in and day out, year in and year out,” says a Children’s Village evaluation of its Work Appreciation for Youth (WAY) program, which features paid mentors like Johnson.
The need is especially great for poor, minority youth, because many agencies cannot find enough adult mentors who match the cultural and social backgrounds of the kids. The Hmong American Partnership in St. Paul, Minn., wants stable, Hmong adults to mentor its Hmong youth – but “very few people [in the Hmong community] are stable,” says Laura LaBlanc, director of Youth and Family Services. “They’re working really hard just to get above poverty,” and don’t have time for intense volunteer commitments.
So the partnership hired a young Hmong adult as a mentor.
Such agencies typically pay mentors around $30,000 a year, going down to $25,000 at some PYC sites, and up to $50,000 at the Royal Project, a juvenile justice-focused program in Seattle.
Studies of these efforts have produced mixed results. (See story, page 21.) “‘Effectiveness’ evidence is thus far quite limited,” the P/PV brief admits, making it “hard to make the persuasive case for paid mentor-counselors.” But the report, “Guides for the Journey: Supporting High-Risk Youth with Paid Mentors and Counselors,” says, “These programs have together produced an intriguing and positive track record.”
Here is some of what that record shows:
Qualifications and Demands
Long Vang, the paid mentor at the Hmong partnership, echoes the views of many youth workers when he says that when you rely on volunteers, “you don’t know who you’re going to get.”
When agencies pay, they can be more selective and demanding. They look for mentors with relevant education or job experience, particularly in recognizing and responding to such issues as substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence.
At Children’s Village, WAY Director Candace Rashada says she hires only mentors with bachelor’s degrees in social sciences or human services, or with extensive experience in human services, “particularly with a disadvantaged population.”
For example, Johnson has worked as a socio-therapist and in a detoxification program for youth and adults. Mentor/counselor Sarah Reid has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and has worked at a vocational school for at-risk teens and at a shelter for mothers and children.
In St. Paul, it was only by creating a paid position that LaBlanc was able to hire the kind of mentor she wanted: a young Hmong from the local community. Vang, 29, moved to the United States with his family when he was 2 and had youth work experience at 4-H.
Once the mentors are on board, agencies put them through more training and reporting than they’d try with most volunteers. At PYC in Portland, the mentors had 40 hours of training at Self Enhancement, then shadowed a staff member for 16 hours before starting their work.
At the Mentor Center in Nebraska, which uses part-timers (at $7 to $9 an hour), the mentors attend monthly meetings with their supervisors and quarterly meetings with other mentors, and produce a report each time they meet with a youth.
“Being paid helps with the additional responsibilities,” says Suzanne Vonderfecht, who coordinates paid and volunteer mentors at the center, which is part of the state’s Behavioral Health Services system.
“You need a high level of accountability” to make sure the mentors are adequately serving troubled youth, Rashada says. “I don’t know that you can do it with a volunteer.”
The Mentors’ Tasks
When the Royal Project set out to reduce disproportionate minority confinement and recidivism in King County, Washington, it hired adults to serve in the traditional role of mentors. But the youths “wanted more than just somebody who would hang out with them,” says Debra Robinson, program manager for the Seattle-based project. “Youth today are a little more sophisticated than that, and their needs are more sophisticated than that. They need someone who can do more than just hang out.”
So the project decided that the mentors would also be “life coaches,” providing more extensive instruction and services, teaching the youth business principles and helping them set and work toward goals. It switched from several part-timers to one full-time mentor/coach with a caseload of 10 to 15, and it is looking for another, Robinson says. She says the mentor meets with the youth individually twice a week, as well as in groups.
Once they pay someone for a job with the “mentor” title, the agencies can expect a lot more than they would of a volunteer. The job “takes on a feel of case management,” says Allen at Self-Enhancement in Portland.
Consider Johnson and Reid, full-time mentor/counselors at Children’s Village, which bills itself as the nation’s largest youth residential treatment facility. Some 300 boys reside on this 150-acre campus, tucked into a wealthy suburb a half-hour north of Manhattan. Most of the youth come by way of New York City’s child welfare system and have significant mental and behavioral problems. Many stay for years, attending one of the three schools on campus.
Each year, 15 to 20 youth enter the WAY Scholarship program, which is delivered primarily by the mentor/counselors. The mentors begin working with the youth on campus and stick with them after they return to their families or age out. The Children’s Village evaluation of WAY (“The WAY to Work,” 2000) says these staffers are expected to make sure the youth receive “advocacy, information, encouragement, work ethics education, counseling and other services as needed to succeed in school and on the job … provide personal and intensive emotional support and practical guidance … be coaches, cheerleaders, surrogate parents, advocates, teachers and friends.”
This might sound like souped-up after-care. The difference is the mentors’ investment of time and emotional commitment. At Children’s Village, the mentors are usually assigned 15 to 20 boys at a time, and they must:
• Follow the youths for five years, including after they leave campus. When a youth moves without notifying his mentor, the mentor must find him. Reid has tracked down families in shelters. “We do a lot of detective work,” Johnson says.
• Meet face-to-face with each youth at least twice a month; keep in regular contact with important people in each youth’s life (such as a grandmother), and file monthly reports about each youth and these contacts. For Johnson, these meetings often involve playing basketball, going to dinner or walking in and out of businesses in Manhattan to pick up job applications. “As we’re walking and talking, things come out,” he says.
• Show up to advocate for or help the youth with problems in such areas as school, the law or employment. The mentors talk with teachers and principals, help families find housing when they face eviction, appear in court for kids who’ve been arrested, and take the kids out for their birthdays when no one else plans to. When one youth got arrested and his mother wouldn’t see him, Reid picked up clothes at his home and took them to him in detention.
• Be available around the clock. But unlike some volunteer mentors, the Children’s Village staffers stress that they are not the youths’ friends. “This is my job,” Johnson says.
Fulfilling these requirements takes a lot of time – a crucial element in helping troubled youth. “There are strong indications derived from the research on adult-youth relationships that some threshold level of ‘intensity’ (frequency of contact) and duration are important,” the P/PV report notes, although it’s not clear what the threshold is.
For the youth in these programs, the threshold is higher than most volunteers could manage. Children’s Village has volunteer mentors for many youth on its campus, but notes in its evaluation that “for youth discharged from residential treatment, it [a volunteer] is probably not enough. Volunteers cannot be expected to go to the extreme lengths that many of the WAY Scholarship counselors had to go in order to develop and sustain relationships with the program participants.”
At the Hmong-American Partnership, Vang initially meets with youth in the mentoring program once a week in groups and about twice a week one-on-one. As the youth move through the program’s stages, they spend less time with Vang, because he needs to make time for newcomers.
That pattern of declining one-on-one time weakened the impact of the PYC programs. Each mentor typically took on new groups of youth in waves, and the only way to do that without perpetually hiring more staff is to give less individual attention to the kids already in the program, working with them more in groups.
At Self Enhancement’s PYC in Portland, as a second group of youth came on board, the first group, “who had developed close bonds with their mentors, were upset about losing the one-on-one time,” says an evaluation by RMC Research Corp.
When the Hmong group ran a PYC, LaBlanc saw that as the first group of youths got less time with their mentor, some of the measured gains reversed. “We suddenly got a real dip in the kids’ academic performance,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I’ve got 40 kids assigned to one mentor. … There are too many kids needing this guy’s time.”
(The Portland and St. Paul sites had versions of paid mentor programs before PYC and have continued them afterward, with caseloads reaching 50.)
Even with relatively moderate caseloads, evaluations of the PYC programs showed that paid mentors had difficulty meeting each youth individually for two hours a week, as required. “Most of the sites weren’t able to do that,” notes Kathy Zavela, who served as project director for a PYC at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
Another problem, she says, was that the program provided intensive mentoring for only about half a year. “The length of mentoring may not have been sufficient enough to yield significant results,” she says.
In contrast, Children’s Village tries to follow the WAY Scholarship youth for up to five years. Friends of the Children, which operates in nine cities, tries to follow its youth for 12 years, through high school.
“It takes a good six months for a [mentoring] relationship to really solidify,” says Taylor, the developer of Across Ages. Then progress can begin. She says Across Ages asks mentors to stay at least a year.
The Philadelphia-based program, which pairs youth with older adults, also tried salaried mentors under a PYC grant.
Getting mentors to stay is one of the advantages that program administrators see in paying salaries. “I think it does add to their ability to make a longer commitment,” says Vonderfecht at the Mentor Center in Nebraska.
For some, the strategy has worked. At the Hmong PYC, two of the three mentors stayed for the entire three-year grant, and the other stayed for two years, LaBlanc says. Vang, who was not part of PYC, has been at the agency for 10 years.
At Children’s Village, the longitudinal study of WAY Scholarship youth showed that they averaged 2.5 changes in mentors during their time in the program.
Other programs have not fared so well. At Self-Enhancement in Portland, three of the four mentors hired for PYC left soon after the end of the first cycle (about seven months), while another left near the end of the three-year grant. They were replaced, but the RMC evaluation found that some youth consequently lost interest in the program. “Staff turnover almost certainly diminished some students’ loyalty to the program and hindered the students’ ability to bond with their mentor,” the report said.
The turnover at Children’s Village, albeit less frequent, has also isolated some youth. While the evaluation indicates that most of the youths felt good about their mentors even though they had several of them, it notes that “some youth became upset when the counselors left the program.”
The evaluation quotes one youth as saying: “He informed me I was going to get another counselor. I didn’t want that; it bothered me. For a while I was really mad. I just felt betrayed. I didn’t want to get to know another counselor.”
Coming in as a replacement mentor requires extra time and care, say mentors Johnson and Reid. But they say having one mentor for years doesn’t appear to be as important to youths as having a person consistently dedicated to them.
“They want to know whether they can depend on you, whether you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do,” Reid says.
Although paying people to be mentors might compel some to stay with a program for a while, the money can also buy an unstable staff. That’s because those hired are professional youth workers; they want to eventually move up from these low- to moderate-paying positions.
At Self Enhancement, three of the four mentors who left PYC took other jobs within the agency, Allen says. “It kind of hurt the program,” he says. “It was a fight” as the organization mulled over letting the mentors change jobs. But the agency’s PYC grant was for just three years, he notes, and “people were looking at job security.”
Turnover in paid mentoring programs is “inevitable,” says Thomas Smith, author of the recent P/PV report. He calls the jobs largely “transitional positions” for people starting out in youth work or moving over from a related field, like teaching. “I don’t think the normal case is going to be one mentor” for a youth’s entire time in a program, he says.
Children’s Village warns about this in materials for agencies looking to replicate WAY: “While the counselor relationship is paramount … job changes will occur, and participants need to feel connected to the program sufficiently to accept a new counselor.”
Amy Baker, director of research at Children’s Village, says the agency learned this from an effort in the early 1990s, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, to replicate WAY at community-based organizations. When the sole mentor at a small program left, she says, the program virtually collapsed, because “kids had an attachment to the person, not the program.”
The Consistency Key
That’s why WAY strives to build a youth’s attachment to the parent agency, Baker says. That can be tricky to carry out without playing down what has traditionally been the crucial element of mentoring: the intense relationship between the adult and the youth.
Paid mentoring tries to make that relationship more consistent. At issue is whether the money buys enough consistency – whether providing a youth with several paid mentors over five to 10 years is helpful enough to be worth the trouble. For most at-risk youth, the alternatives are an occasional volunteer mentor or none at all.
What’s most important, says Zavela at the University of Northern Colorado, is “not so much whether a person’s paid or not paid to be a mentor. It’s whether there’s a consistent adult presence in that [young] person’s life.”
The Research Says …
A summary of some evaluation findings for programs with paid mentors:
Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
Evaluated by Children’s Village
In the most extensive evaluation of a paid mentoring program, researchers followed the 15 to 20 boys who entered the WAY Scholarship program each year from 1985 to 1994. Each group was followed for at least five years, the length of prescribed enrollment in the program. The study totaled 15 years, tracking 155 youths and a comparison group of 76 Children’s Village boys who did not participate in the scholarship program.
Most of the findings focus on the 76 percent of the youth who stayed in the program for at least half of the planned five years.
Among the findings:
• Academic achievement was higher for those who stayed in the program than for the comparison group. At the end of the study, 82 percent of WAY youth were still in school, had graduated or had received an equivalency degree, compared with 66 percent for the control group.
• Five percent of those who stayed in WAY had been sentenced to prison after age 20, compared with 35 percent of those who left the program before the halfway point, and 15 percent of the comparison group.
• Eighty-five percent of those who stayed in WAY were in school or employed at the end of the program. Ninety-five percent were employed, in school, or had a diploma or equivalency degree.
• In interviews with 39 former WAY scholars, three-fourths spontaneously reported positive feelings about their mentor/counselors. They said the staff members went out of their way to check up on them. “He would come up to my school or wherever I worked at,” said one youth. “I mean, he always used to call and check up on me. Are you all right? Do you need anything?”
Project Youth Connect
The initial PYC programs funded by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration produced scattered positive impacts but weak results overall. The poor results point to the drawbacks of trying to squeeze in a little mentoring for a lot of youth. Evaluators and program mangers found that the length of the mentoring relationships (about seven months to one year) was too short, the youths didn’t get enough one-on-one time with their mentors, and some sites experienced significant turnover in mentoring staff. The programs included volunteer mentors to supplement the work of paid mentors.
Self Enhancement, Inc.
Evaluated by RMC Research Corp.
A longitudinal analysis with a control group reported “very little support that Project Youth Connect at SEI was effective in changing students’ behavior regarding alcohol, tobacco and other drug use or in impacting academic achievement.”
There were pockets of impact. After 32 months, mentored students in one cohort had reduced or maintained the same level of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use, while control group youth reported increases. For another cohort, youth who received “a higher dosage” of one-on-one mentoring reported less marijuana use, better refusal skills, less use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana by peers and more positive peer relationships than those who received “a lower dosage” of mentoring.
The program participants reported more positive effects than the data show. Mentored youth credited the program with improving their relationships with family and peers, improving their study habits and attitudes toward school, and changing their attitudes toward alcohol, tobacco and drugs. The mentors “felt strongly that they had witnessed positive changes” in some youth, with several attributing those changes to one-on-one mentoring.
The evaluation recommended that mentoring programs “emphasize the development of long-term mentoring relationships and focus on one-on-one mentoring activities rather than group activities.”
Hmong American Partnership
St. Paul, Minn.
Evaluated by Wilder Research Center
The program produced some positive effects on behaviors such as academic achievement, study habits and unexcused absences from school, but they didn’t last.
There were significant problems in getting the youths enough one-on-one time with mentors. The study noted that the vast majority of the youths’ time with their mentors was spent in group activities. For example, the second of the two cohorts of youth who came into the program averaged eight hours of group mentoring per month and just a half-hour of one-on-one mentoring.
The study also found that the first group of youth got the most individual time with the mentors, while the group that joined later got less time because the mentors had to work with more youth.
Some of the longest-lasting effects were on parents. The study found lasting improvement in parents’ involvement in school and attitudes toward substance abuse. (The program had a paid family mentor, in addition to the three paid mentors for youth.)
The youths and mentors reported enjoying the experience, and retention rates were high for both.
The evaluators recommended maintaining the same level of mentoring for the youths even as more join the program, and maintaining a ratio of one hour of individual mentoring for every three hours of group mentoring. “These changes would require more funding to permit the same level of service in each cycle,” the study noted.
Friends of the Children (FOTC)
Based in Portland, Ore.
No long-term longitudinal study of FOTC overall has been done, but several research organizations have conducted short-term studies of the programs in various cities. Among the findings:
• By and large, FOTC mentors, called “friends,” do not seem to struggle to satisfy the requirement to meet with youth at least four hours a week (individually or in groups).
•Although the youth are deemed at risk, FOTC youth appear to do relatively well in areas such as school attendance and academic performance. A 2003-2004 study of the Portland site reported that “improved relationships between Friends and their children were associated with advancement in social and emotional development, making good decisions and school success.”
• The dropout rate of 10 percent for adolescents in the Portland program was less than half the rate for adolescents in the county as a whole.
Mentors: Who Pays
WAY Scholars: Children’s Village began its Work Appreciation for Youth (WAY) Scholarship program in 1984 to help prepare youth for successful lives when they leave its residential treatment facility in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. All youth at the facility participate in some form of WAY, the first four stages of which focus largely on job training, employment and personal responsibility. The final stage is the scholar program, in which selected youths are assigned mentor/counselors to work with the youths at the facility and in the community after they leave, for a total of up to five years.
Each of the program’s six mentors handles about 20 youth. The program is funded by private donations to Children’s Village, which received $600,000 in such contributions in its last fiscal year. The WAY program has been replicated in several cities in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Pay: $28,000-$33,000.
Friends of the Children: Started in Portland, Ore., in 1993, FOTC operates in nine cities. The program provides mentors, called “friends,” to youth for 12 years, starting in first grade. The mentors are full-time, paid professionals with caseloads of up to eight youths each. They are to spend four hours each week with each youth (either individually or in groups). Major funders for the national organization include the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Local chapters raise funds through donations and agreements with local and state governments. Pay: Ranges at various sites from about $24,000 to $38,000.
ROYAL Project: Funded by King County (Seattle), Wash., and run by a law firm, the Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons. The program, Raising Our Youth as Leaders, seeks to address disproportionate minority representation in the juvenile justice system. It deals with youth both in and out of detention. There is one mentor/life coach on staff, with a caseload of 10 to 15 youth. He works with each youth for six to eight months, following a life skills curriculum as well as serving as mentor. The mentor is expected to meet with each youth for at least two hours per week. Pay: $45,000-$50,000.
The Mentor Center: Less than three years old, the program uses 30 to 35 part-time mentors (90 percent of whom are paid) to work with at-risk youth in a 22-county area of Nebraska. Most of the youth are referred by social service and criminal justice agencies, and live with their biological families, in foster homes or in treatment facilities. Each mentor usually works with one youth. He or she meets with that youth as often as a caseworker requests (typically between one and five hours a week.) The center is part of Behavioral Health Services, which provides mental health care on behalf of the state. Pay: $7-$9 an hour.
Project Youth Connect: A mentoring project for 9- to 15-year-olds, funded by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. About 15 programs were funded from 1998 to 2001, involving about 1,500 youth. Youth got most, if not all, of their one-on-one time with the paid mentors within the first six to eight months. The mentors were typically stationed at schools to work with the youth, and worked with them in other settings, including the agency offices. Caseloads generally ranged from 12 to 20.
The sites included: Self Enhancement Inc., Portland, Ore.; Hmong American Partnership, St. Paul., Minn.; University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, Colo.; and Across Ages, Philadelphia, Pa. Some of the sites had paid mentoring programs before PYC and/or continued such efforts afterward. Pay: About $25,000.
Candace Rashada, Director
Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522
Laura LaBlanc, Director
Youth and Family Services
Hmong American Partnership
1075 Arcade St.
St. Paul, MN 55106
David Allen, Program Manager
Social and Support Services
for Educational Success
3920 North Kerby Ave.
Portland, OR 97227-1255
Suzanne Vonderfecht, Mentor Coordinator
The Mentor Center
Region III Behavioral Health Services
P.O. Box 2555
Kearney, NE 68848-2555
Debra Robinson, Program Manager
The ROYAL Project
Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons
1401 E. Jefferson St., Suite 200
Seattle, WA 98122
Public/ Private Ventures
2000 Market St., Suite 600
Philadelphia, PA 19103