The importance of a caring adult in the life of a child cannot be overstated, yet one out of five young people—or 8.5 million kids—lacks a caring adult presence in his or her life. Ideally, that adult is a parent or close relative, but in many cases that caring adult is not a family member, but a mentor. That mentor may be a teacher at school, a staff member at a Boys and Girls Club, a coach from a Police Activities League team, a volunteer from a program such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, or a neighborhood friend. Where a mentor comes from is not critical. What is critical is that a child has an adult in his or her life who can provide guidance, values, stability, and love.
Although mentoring has never been a high priority of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Foundation has, nonetheless, invested more than $29 million to support it since 1989. Those investments have taken a variety of forms. They include research to better understand the concept of positive youth development and to explore the factors that lead children living in disadvantaged, often dangerous, circumstances to tap their underlying resiliency and to thrive. Mainly, however, they include programs that test different approaches to bringing caring adults into the lives of at-risk children - from volunteer and paid mentors to after-school sports programs.
In this chapter, Irene Wielawski examines both the research on mentoring and the Foundation-funded programs to encourage it.