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(Family Features) At age eleven, Willie was headed for disaster. His home life was full of violence and abuse, and he was full of self-hatred and anger.
"I felt no one loved me," he says. "So at twelve, I started digging my own grave in the canyon behind my house."
But then something happened. Some caring mentors came alongside Willie and changed his life. As he puts it, "They kept pursuing me because they saw what I could not - my true potential."
Willie was considered an at-risk youth. Kids like Willie have problems that put their health, development and overall success in life in jeopardy.
The National At-Risk Education Network defines at-risk in two ways:
How do young people end up at-risk? To look at the dropout issue, there is no single risk factor to predict who is likely to drop out of school - it's actually a combination of circumstances.
The National Dropout Prevention Center/Network at Clemson University reviewed 25 years of research and found that dropping out of school is related to individual, family, school and community factors. It's described as a long process of disengagement that adds up over time.
Being raised "in unfavorable circumstances" includes factors such as poverty, limited access to opportunities, and the lack of positive adult influences in their lives.
"Boys naturally look toward men for guidance, but too many young men don't have solid male role models to look up to," said Craig McClain, cofounder of Boys to Men Mentoring Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to guiding boys through their passage to manhood. "Growing up without fathers, male mentors or positive role models has a devastating effect on young men, and ultimately our society."
Mentoring is the development of a caring, supportive relationship that helps someone reach their fullest potential. The National Mentoring Partnership (www.mentoring.org) says that formal mentoring relationships help reduce delinquency, substance abuse and academic failure. They also promote "positive outcomes, such as self-esteem, social skills and knowledge of career opportunities."
"A lot of boys today don't have anyone showing them or telling them how to be a good man," says Joe Sigurdson, cofounder of Boys to Men. "We help boys become better men. We bring good men into boys' lives to be mentors and role models. We teach and model integrity, accountability, character, compassion and respect. And it works."
The Boys to Men mentoring program has three components: an experiential mentor training for carefully screened mentors, a Rites of Passage weekend and ongoing group mentoring. The group mentoring allows the boys and their mentors to meet in a group setting to strengthen relationships, share the challenges in their lives, and get positive support.
"We've seen some major changes in these boys' lives," said McClain. "Over 5,300 men and boys have been through the program over the years, and we've seen boys overcome incredible odds to become loving fathers, husbands and good men."
Started in San Diego in 1996, Boys to Men has expanded to communities in 27 cities and 4 countries. Their newest strategy for reaching young men is a site-based mentoring program that focuses on middle and high school boys who have been identified by schools as at-risk.
At the Gateway Community Day High School, participants have improved their GPAs by an average of 57 percent, reduced discipline referrals by 216 percent, and defied the school's historic dropout rate of nearly 36 percent with a 0 percent dropout rate.
"The teenage years are critical in a young man's life, when boys are making decisions that affect the rest of their lives," said Sigurdson. "With the site-based program, we give boys a place to talk about what's really going on in their lives, as well as a community of mentors who listen, believe in them and help them make better choices. And the data from our Gateway program shows that it's remarkably effective."
Unfortunately, there is a constant need for mentors. To become a mentor, you don't have to be an expert in anything, and you don't have to have all the answers. The National Mentoring Partnership says that successful mentors:
"We have seen the difference it can make in boys' lives when someone gives them the support they need," said McClain. "We've had the privilege of hearing young men share their moving stories and have walked alongside them as they've journeyed into manhood. It's an exciting thing to be a part of, and I encourage every man to be a part of it."
And as for Willie? He's ready to give back to others. "Boys to Men was the catalyst for a change in my life so dramatic that my whole being was altered. I can look a kid in the eyes who is hurting and in need of some love, and I can offer him my love, experience and wisdom. I can say 'I know you're hurting, but you don't have to be strong anymore because I'm here for you.'"
Mentoring doesn't just benefit the youth. Mentors find they not only have fun, but they grow personally, feel more productive, understand other cultures more, and develop better relationships with their own children.
When choosing a mentorship program to become involved in: