Guest column: Young people and the power of relationships | AspenTimes.com

Guest column: Young people and the power of relationships

Tamara Tormohlen
Aspen Community Foundation

Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014

At the beginning of each year, we often make resolutions that help us set goals and chart a course for the coming 12 months. This month, as you ponder the possibilities for the months ahead, please consider volunteering time to mentor a young person.

Mentors play critical roles during a child's formative years from elementary to high school. Mentors can be parents, educators, coaches or just about anyone, but the value of a strong mentor lies less in the position they occupy and more in the strength of the relationship forged with a child.

Nationwide, nearly 1 in 4 students drops out of high school. And despite the greater Roaring Fork Valley's reputation of abundance, there are hundreds of youth from Aspen to Parachute at risk of dropping out for a variety of reasons.

Glenwood Springs-based YouthZone serves 1,100 youth every year who have been referred by the juvenile justice system, a school disciplinary system or their families. Fortunately, just 9 percent of YouthZone's clients reoffend, but this effective organization is only one piece of the regional puzzle.

When a teen fails to graduate high school, his future earning potential drops and he's more likely to have health problems, more likely to need social services and more likely to end up incarcerated. The more young people we can steer toward high school graduation, the more self-sufficient adults we'll have and the better our communities and society will be.

Mentors can make this kind of difference for children on the edge by delivering good advice, serving as a role model or helping with an after-school activity, but the most important element is listening to that young person, understanding her and sometimes challenging her to try a little harder.

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In a recent address to the Aspen Community Foundation, Dan Cardinali, president of Communities in Schools, explained the power of mentoring relationships. He was speaking specifically about K-12 education, but his message is applicable to child rearing in general.

"It is about the daily being proud of and (being) willing to say, 'I'm disappointed,' because I know your story and I know you can do better," Cardinali explained. Love includes both applause and constructive criticism, and a good adult mentor does both.

In her TED talk, Rita Pierson, an educator with 40 years of classroom and administrative experience, told listeners that "every child needs a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best they can possibly be."

This isn't necessarily easy work, but it's crucial for individual children, for our communities and for our nation. Will you consider it?

Locally, a number of organizations rely on volunteer mentors to connect with and empower young people. For example, the Pre-Collegiate Program, a joint venture among the Roaring Fork School District (Basalt, Carbondale, and Glenwood Springs), Colorado Mountain College, the University of Colorado and the Aspen Community Foundation, relies on volunteer mentors to support students who would be the first in their families to attend college. Starting in seventh grade, mentors work with both the student and the family in attaining high school graduation and college enrollment. This 11-year-old program has shown remarkable results: 100 percent of high school seniors in the program graduate, and 97 percent go on to college.

The Aspen-based Buddy Program is another volunteer-based mentoring organization. By giving a couple of hours three or four times per month, adult Big Buddies establish important relationships with their Little Buddies, ages 6 to 18. The Buddy Program matches these students with responsible, caring adults — initially for one year, with the option to continue — who are committed to making a difference in a child's life.

So, how about mentoring? It's a New Year's resolution with real impact.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.

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