As a broadcast journalist, Joan Thomas said that a large part of her profession entailed chronicling the worst aspects of humanity. Youth services volunteering, she said, was her way of being a part of the solution to so many of the problems she covered as a newswoman.
Working with her mentee, Erica Gibson — now a computer application developer with two young children of her own — was not always easy, she remembered.
“I think there will come times in a volunteer’s life when he or she might say ‘this is too much work, I can’t deal with this,’” Thomas said, recalling times when mentoring Gibson was so difficult she couldn’t even speak to the youngster. However, that connection between mentor and mentee was never in jeopardy, she said, because the two had developed a profound sense of trust.
“Other volunteers have to know that it’s OK to say, ‘well, all right, you’re wearing out this relationship,’” Thomas added. “As long as you are patient, committed and consistent — which is really the key — you are going to make a difference in some young person’s life.”
Thomas said that youth-services volunteers should note different disciplinary styles among ethnic groups. Working as a mentor in Atlanta in the early 1990s, she observed a more “laid back,” negotiation-based style employed among white mentors, while African-American volunteers utilized what she called a “tough-love approach.”
“If they were misbehaving: go home, see you next week,” Thomas recalled. “There was no timeout. It was absolute expulsion.”
If volunteers go into a mentoring program expecting quick fixes, Thomas said, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. “It’s a process, a relationship that has to evolve,” she stated. “A lot of times, the child has situations and circumstances at home that a child may not share until that trust is established.”
Similarly important, she said, was understanding a child’s self-esteem levels, and working on ways to build confidence while mentoring a young person. Without that self-esteem, Thomas said, a child cannot help him or herself; and unless a child wants to improve her circumstances, she added, it is very unlikely that a mentoring program can net positive outcomes.
Finally, Thomas advised volunteers not jump to conclusions or diagnose a young person’s difficulties. “On the surface, it may appear to be one thing, but in actuality, it might be something completely different,” she said. “You cannot answer the question unless you know what the question is.”