Lincoln Vidal has been juggling a heavy workload as an attorney at Norwegian Cruise Line with his marriage, a toddler and a recent house move. Squeezing in time to mentor a child hasn’t been easy, but Vidal just saw the payoff of the five years he has put in as a Big Brother to now 14-year-old Chris: “He was talking about going to college and I felt, wow, maybe he was listening the whole time.”
January is National Mentoring Month and as the nation celebrates, the biggest worry, for most people, is that committing enough time to make a difference for a child doesn’t fit into the daily rhythm of their lives. That concern around work/life balance has contributed to disappointingly low volunteer rates in many cities — including South Florida, which ranks dead last among 51 major metro areas.
However, for professionals with limited time and energy, worries about time commitment may be unfounded. A study by Wharton’s Cassie Mogilner, published in the Harvard Business Review, found spending time helping others left participants feeling as if they have more time, not less. The study, conducted in 2012 by University of Pensylvania-Wharton researchers, consisted of four experiments with more than 600 participants and compared the effects of giving time with wasting it or spending it on oneself. Mogilner’s research shows that spending as few as 10 minutes helping others can make people not only feel less time-constrained but also feel capable, confident and useful. At the same time, the children who are mentored maintain better attitudes toward schools, have better school attendance, and are less likely to use drugs or start drinking, according to Mentoring.org, a nonprofit charged with expanding youth mentoring relationships.
Some mentors find the time by having mentees come to them in the workplace during the workday. Big Brothers Big Sisters has a “School to Work” program that brings at-risk youth to their mentors in the workplace for four hours once a month. Companies that have participated include Burger King Corp, Carnival Corp., and Inktel. Any business with 10 volunteers can take part.
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Natalie Parker, director of human resources and operations at DoubleTree by Hilton Grand Hotel Biscayne Bay Miami, has mentored three high school students in her workplace from nearby Booker T. Washington High School over the past four years. “I have seen the transition in all of them,” she says. All three have gone on to college. She admits that on some days, having someone shadow you around the workplace can be distracting. “You have to want to do it. If it feels like a burden, it’s going to show,” she says. At DoubleTree, the hotel also has benefited by having dozens of students mentored on site; some have taken summer internships and part-time and full-time jobs at the property. “You can shape them to become your future hires,” Parker says.
Another mentoring approach is meeting with a child in a school near the workplace, usually during lunch hour. Many volunteers discover that spending an hour away from the office not only benefits an at-risk youth, it also gives them an opportunity to clear their heads. Most mentoring programs give volunteers a framework for what to discuss and how to make goals with a mentee.
A common argument is that mentoring a child during off the clock hours takes someone’s limited free time away from their significant other or their own children. Organizations recommend making mentoring a child a couples activity or a family endeavor. “We’re not asking anyone to stop doing things they normally do in their life. We want them to incorporate being a volunteer into the normal things they already do,” says Lydia Muniz, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami. “Some of the simple things we take for granted, like going to the beach, for these kids may be an eye-opening experience.”
Attorney Dan Gelber began mentoring Travis Thomas as a Big Brother when he was single and the boy was 6. As Thomas grew older and Gelber married and had children, Gelber included him in outings. “My children benefited by having access to someone who was not exactly like them around when they were growing up,” Gelber says. “Anyone with children is already doing something with their kids. They are just including another child.” Today Travis is 31 and in dental school at Tufts, with a family of his own.
Mentors say not all volunteer relationships need a full-time commitment. Vidal says he recently began casually mentoring a student who was the first in his family to attend college and wanted guidance. He gives advice and support as needed — often by phone. That, too, is rewarding, he says.
Nunez says she often hears from volunteers who tell her they didn’t realize how much they would get in return: “For most people, it’s a life-changing experience.”
Cindy Krischer Goodman writes regularly on work life and workplace topics. Connect with her @balancegal, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit worklifebalancingact.com.
Some youth mentoring organizations
▪ Stand Up for Kids (standupforkids.org)
▪ Big Brothers Big Sisters (bbbsmiami.org)
▪ Girl Power Rocks (girlpowerrocks.org)
▪ Honey Shine Mentoring Program (honeyshine.org)
▪ Women of Tomorrow (womenoftomorrow.org)
▪ Take Stock in Children (takestockinchildren.org)