At a time when many youth-serving programs are virtually begging adults to volunteer as mentors, anyone who wants to mentor for Best Buddies has to get in line; the waiting list stands at 300.
The secret for the international mentoring program: The mentors don’t meet the kids. They communicate by e-mail.
It’s a compromise – the kind that more youth agencies are making, as the demand for mentors continues to outpace the supply.
But while “e-mentoring” has paired thousands of youth with adults who aren’t available for traditional, face-to-face mentoring, setting up such a system requires new procedures, and evaluations have not shown measurable impacts on kids.
Advocates say e-mentoring attracts volunteers who could not otherwise mentor because of their schedules or geographical barriers, and can improve face-to-face mentoring relationships by helping mentors and youth communicate more. E-mail makes physical attributes such as race less of a factor in relationships, and can be particularly attractive to youth who are reserved in person, says Jean Rhodes, an adviser to MENTOR/The National Mentoring Partnership and a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
On the other hand, the lack of nonverbal cues in e-mail can make it easy to misconstrue electronic communications, and some participants may be reluctant to share emotions via e-mail. Perhaps the biggest barrier is the difficulty of maintaining a personal relationship by e-mail.
First comes the task of getting a handle on what e-mentoring is.
“ E-mentoring is being used to describe many Internet-based communications that may serve a useful purpose, but are not mentoring and do not adhere to the national standards of good mentoring practice,” says Mary Mack, associate director for the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Some online tutoring services call themselves “e-mentoring,” but they are primarily academic. Other models aim to give youth the benefits of a true mentoring experience, including friendship and discussions about issues in a youth’s life. Some programs rely solely on e-mentoring, while others include a face-to-face component.
How It Works
Best Buddies, a Miami-based international organization that serves people with disabilities, launched eBuddies in 2000 as a complement to its face-to-face mentoring program. It says it manages 1,000 eBuddies matches.
The nonprofit says the screening process for mentors and youth for its online program is more extensive than for its standard program. The requirements include personal references and parental consents, with adult volunteers checked against sex offender registries.
“ Some people go into e-mentoring thinking it will be easier than traditional programs,” says Cindy Sturtevant, director of training and technical assistance for MENTOR, a nonprofit that works to expand high-quality mentoring. “E-mentoring requires all of the safeguards of traditional mentoring, plus extras like Internet safety training.”
The mentors commit themselves to communicating by e-mail once a week for at least one year. The youths and adults must agree to a code of conduct, which, among other things, prohibits participants from exchanging personal information like addresses, photos and phone numbers, and bans pornography and racist or sexist language. They can talk about their families, friendships and personal issues, says Rachel Kolliopoulos, deputy director of government relations at eBuddies.
Many volunteers initially doubt e-mail can provide a foundation for a real relationship, but eBuddies stresses the positive side of e-mail’s impersonal nature. Kolliopoulos notes, for instance, that because the adults and youth don’t meet, personal attributes such as physical appearance and disabilities are largely removed as factors in the relationships.
MENTOR offers Mentors Online, which provides a format for online communication without giving away personal information. The software keeps a copy of all exchanges, in case questions arise about inappropriate behavior, Kolliopoulos says.
With the technology in place, the meat of mentoring can begin.
In the New York area, the nonprofit iMentor works with schools and community-based agencies, such as the Far Rockaway Boys & Girls Club, to create and maintain e-mentoring relationships. The seven-year-old program manages about 500 e-mentor relationships, says Michael O’Brien, iMentor’s director of development and operations.
Volunteers for iMentor agree to commit four hours a week to a mentoring relationship, which can last from one to four years. A curriculum helps to focus the weekly e-mails between mentors and their youth.
About 60 percent of that e-mail content is initiated with the help of “writing prompts” provided by iMentor, O’Brien says. He says the prompts cover such topics as family history, heroes and community awareness, and include samples.
The flexibility of e-mail relationships is essential to drawing volunteers, O’Brien says. “Our mentors tend to be busier, with fuller schedules,” he says. “The majority would not have volunteered under other circumstances.”
Another factor is the removal of geographic barriers; iMentor pairs adults from Manhattan with kids up to two hours away by car.
The program includes a face-to-face dimension. The organization requires mentor-youth pairs to meet at events it sponsors, such as art shows and sports.
The eBuddies program, on the other hand, is exclusively virtual; the agency says the youth and adults are not supposed to meet.
“ There is value in the e-mail relationship,” says Lisa Derx, vice president of government relations. “It’s very powerful for people with intellectual disabilities to receive e-mail.”
The program recommends e-mail exchanges at least once a week, but Derx says that many pairs have e-mailed each other daily for years.
Evaluating the impact of e-mentoring has been difficult.
Consider the Digital Heroes Campaign, launched in 2000 by People magazine, MENTOR and America Online. A 2001-02 evaluation of the exclusively online mentoring program found that although mentors agreed to commit themselves for one school year, only 47 percent of the relationships lasted six months or more, reports Cynthia Sipe, independent youth research and evaluation consultant. While some pairs exchanged messages weekly, other relationships never got off the ground.
“ I would not expect e-mentoring to impact youth if the relationship did not last more than six months,” Sipe says.
An evaluation of the 2004-05 iMentor program showed statistically significant improvements in youths’ written expression and in their Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and typing skills. But a control group showed similar gains in technical skills, according to the evaluation by Healthy Concepts, a consultant in New City, N.Y. It said the mentored youth also reported large gains in their leadership and self-confidence.
An approach that combines e-mail with face-to-face mentoring may offer the best of both worlds, Rhodes says.
“The real e-mentoring excitement,” O’Brien says, “is that we can use technology to build stronger relationships.”