Making an Impact on Youth Through School-Based Mentoring
By Alison Heck, Internet Reporter

"Mentors are like Earth angels because they are always watching over you; they are always there for you to ask questions."
                                            -graduate of the Norwalk Mentor Program, Norwalk, Conn. 

School-based mentoring programs have succeeded throughout the United States since their inception in the mid-eighties. These mentoring programs take at risk students from public schools, ranging in age from K-12, and match them with a mentor from their community who can help the children reach their full potential. Schools are a prime place for mentoring programs because they have the facilities, the support services, such as teachers and faculty, and, of course, children to mentor.

"You have to go where the children are; schools have a ready-made collection of kids ready for a mentoring relationship," said James Waller of the National Mentoring Partnership.

Although it is hard to tell statistically how successful mentoring is in the schools, some independent studies have shown that students who have been mentored are less likely to use drugs or become involved in violent crime. Many mentoring programs will develop and conform to the needs of that specific community, but there has been one program that has been consistently replicated in over 15 states throughout the country. 

The Norwalk Mentor Program

Located in Norwalk, Conn., the Norwalk Mentor Program has successfully mentored children in the city's 12 elementary, four middle, and two high schools since 1986. It is the oldest school-based program in America and is dedicated to matching students who are in need of positive adult role models with volunteers from the Norwalk community. Currently, there are 650 pairs of mentors and mentees in the program.

School-based programs, like all other mentoring programs, depend on volunteers from the community to make the program successful. At Norwalk mentors are recruited from every corner of the community, from corporate executives to senior citizens. Over 31 businesses and organizations in the area have employees who participate. There is no specific profile to become a mentor except that they be willing and have the time to give. 

"Mainly we look for someone who indicates liking to work with children and can make the commitment," said Donna Custer, Director of the Norwalk Mentor Program. "The main thing is that commitment because a lot of the children have adults that flow in and out of their lives already."

In addition to community members providing support to children, the mentoring program itself provides a benefit to the community as a whole.
"School-based mentoring programs are essential to communities because schools are the hubs of the communities," said Waller. "Bringing the community into the schools is a positive thing."

Teachers and school faculty refer mentees for the program. The general criteria for a mentee can include low self-esteem, low motivation, loss of a parent, or the absence of a parent in the home. A student is not allowed into the program without written parental permission and each mentor must pass through a screening process and a training session before they are matched with a mentee.

Each mentor must complete a two-hour training session that helps them prepare for mentoring. They are given tips on how to work with their child, what activities to do and even how to read to a child.

"It sounds like a simple activity," Custer said. "But it can be intimidating reading with or to a child. We do exercises to help people become comfortable with it."
Elementary level mentors read with their mentee, visit the library and play games and sports to help build the self-esteem of the student. At the middle and high school level, the mentors provide academic assistance, advise about career interests and college preparation.

In order to encourage the mentors and mentees to continue with the program, there are year-end receptions where the mentors are recognized and asked to continue with their mentee during the next school year.

Not Just Mentoring

School-based programs also make the effort to extend their reach outside of the mentor and mentee relationship to further the positive effects. In addition to the main mentoring program at Norwalk, several other programs have developed over the years that work in conjunction with mentoring. F.A.M.I.L.Y. (Families and Mentors Involved in Learning with Youth) is a simple off shoot of the main mentoring program. Custer said that during evening sessions the mentor would meet with the mentee and their family at an activity like bingo.

One unique feature of Norwalk's program is the Norwalk Mentor Scholarship Fund, created in 1992. Every mentee who remains with the program through their senior year in high school and graduates receives a $1,000 scholarship toward any post-secondary education. Custer said that the $1,000 will pay for one semester at the community college in Norwalk.

And, in the true tradition of the technology age, e-mentoring has also become a successful component for Norwalk. E-mentoring allows the mentor and mentee to communicate by e-mail in lieu of meeting one-on-one, but they must meet at least once in person during the month. E-mentoring also allows the mentor and mentee to keep in touch after the mentee has graduated from the program.

"When a student hits high school it is hard to keep track of them because they have become involved in so many things," said Custer. "At the same time it can be difficult for the mentor to leave the office or meet when they travel."

With programs such as e-mentoring, the Norwalk program has changed with the times and still remains viable as a way to help youth navigate the difficulties they experience on their way to adulthood.

Overall, Custer said that the reason the Norwalk Mentor Program has been successful all these years is because it was creative in the beginning when there weren't any other programs to pattern after. Mainly, Custer credited the mentors with the programs success.

"It is truly a people-powered program," Custer said. "It's impossible to explain the look on a mentors face when they meet their mentee. The strength and time that the mentors give, you can't put a price on that."


For more information on mentoring, you can view the recent "Mentoring Matters" videoconference at

For more information on the National Mentoring Partnership, go to

For more information on the Norwalk Mentor Program, go to:
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339