National Mentoring Month Advocacy Guide (2021) & Interview with VP of Programs for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado

“Mentoring is doing a lot of the little things for a long period of time … And through that, we produce remarkable outcomes. At its core, it’s just a kid feeling like somebody out there cares about them.”

Chris Sautter, Vice President of Programs, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado

When you think of the best moments of your childhood, outside of your home, who comes to mind? A favorite teacher, coach, neighbor, friend? Whether formal or informal, positive relationships with mentors provide benefits for both youth and adults. Benefits for youth may include healthier lifestyle choices, better school performance, and enhanced self-esteem and confidence. Adult mentors may also experience a stronger sense of purpose and connection while gaining insight into the lives of children and families in their community.

The impact of mentoring does not end with mentors and mentees, however. New research published in March 2020 by the Children and Youth Services Review reveals that formal mentoring programs have the potential to positively impact communities as a whole. Mentors in the study reported that participating in a formal mentoring experience increased their ability to support young people outside of the program, such as family and community members, colleagues, and youth in other volunteer settings, as well.

The Mentoring Effect is a 2014 report on youth perspectives on mentoring. Taken from a nationally representative sample of 1,100 young people, survey results correspond to three areas with regard to formal and informal mentoring:

  1. The effect of mentoring on aspirations and outcomes
  2. The value of mentors
  3. The availability of mentors

Key insights include:

  • Mentored youth are more likely to engage in positive behaviors such as participating in sports and extra-curricular activities, holding leadership positions at school or in the community, and attending college.
  • The longer the mentoring relationship lasts, the greater the value for youth.
  • Youth considered at-risk are more likely to want a mentor, but less likely to have one.
  • Nine out of ten youth mentees aspire to be mentors themselves.

Overall, the significance of the mentor relationships lends strong support for formal mentoring programs. One such program is Big Brothers Big Sisters of America (BBBSA). The first of its kind, BBBSA has more than a century of history and is backed by independent research supporting the positive outcomes of its structured mentorship programs.

In honor of National Mentoring Month, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado Vice President of Programs, Chris Sautter, speaks about the importance of mentoring, what makes a good mentor, and the impact mentoring can have on the lives of both mentors and mentees.

Interview with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado Vice President of Programs, Chris Sautter

Chris Sautter is a community engagement, nonprofit and social impact professional with a long history with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado (BBBSC). Sautter began as a BBBSC community-based volunteer in 2000 and mentored three “Little Brothers” over a 17-year period. He took on a professional role with BBBSC as program manager of the Big Literacy Corps AmeriCorps Program in 2000 and then moved on to serve as manager of recruitment and community outreach from 2006 to 2010. He assumed a leadership position as vice president of programs in March of 2020.

A strong advocate for volunteer and community service, Sautter is on the board of civil rights and social action organization Community Shares of Colorado and is a member of the selection committee for the Merkle Scholarship Program for The Denver Foundation. He completed two terms of service with AmeriCorps (1999-2001): one in his home state of Nebraska and the other in Colorado where he has lived ever since.

The Importance Of Mentoring

Everyone benefits from the presence of positive people in their lives. This is a natural aspect of what it means to be human and holds true throughout the lifespan. Sautter shared that from a youth development perspective, however, “There is a significant body of evidence that reveals that youth who have a positive, caring presence other than their parents are going to be more successful in so many different areas of their lives.”

Sautter went on to emphasize that the researched-backed benefits of youth mentoring have stood the test of time. The body of evidence is substantial and continues to reveal that youth mentoring is one of the most meaningful methods through which we can positively impact young lives.

Foundational research done by BBBSA in partnership with public and private ventures 20 TO 30 years ago continues to hold true decades later and is supported by the results of current studies. Data consistently demonstrates that youth mentoring leads to:

  • More resiliency
  • Less susceptibility to at-risk behaviors
  • Greater academic success
  • Stronger capacity to form positive bonds and relationships with others

Mentoring: The BBBS Way

Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) focuses on a specific model of mentoring that involves making meaningful, monitored matches between adult (Bigs) and children (Littles). They recruit volunteers who want to become involved in a child’s life on a weekly or bi-weekly basis over a prolonged period of time in a structured, mentoring model. Each individual match creates a set of goals and aspirations with the support of a program specialist who functions as a case manager.

The monitoring, support, and guidance of program specialists is key to developing match relationships, ensuring child safety, and ultimately, achieving the positive outcomes of resiliency, academic achievement, and strong bonds with others.

BBBS has found higher levels of success by supporting and cultivating the relationship between the three individuals involved in a match (adult mentor, youth mentee, and parent/guardian) through professional guidance by program specialists. In addition, program specialists support child safety by ensuring that mentors are acting in the best interests of the child. BBBS has found this model to produce a high level of positive outcomes for the youth involved due to this ongoing coaching, monitoring, and support.

The Impact On One Adult Mentor

A lot of the stories about mentoring speak about the impact of the experience not only on the lives of the children but on the adult mentors themselves. Of his experience as a youth mentor with BBBSC, Sautter shared that, “It has been one of the most inspiring ways that I could get involved as a volunteer in my community.”

During the 17 years he volunteered as a Big Brother, Sautter was matched with three individual children to support a set of youth development goals specific to each child. He described each relationship as completely different although some similarities emerged over time.

As opposed to more episodic or transactional types of volunteering, Sautter explained, mentoring offered “the opportunity to become involved in the life of a child in a more robust fashion.” He got to know the families, the siblings, and the dynamics of what was going on in their lives. This matched what he was seeking from his volunteer experience—one with depth and interaction—and it proved to be more rewarding than he could have imagined. Sautter commented that this type of long-term volunteer experience allowed him to be “connected to real issues and real needs that we have in our communities from a real perspective.”

He added,

I feel thankful and lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to interact with youth in this way … I look forward, in the future when my children are grown, to having the opportunity to become involved in children’s lives in similar ways.

What Makes A Good Mentor?

Mentoring happens in many ways both formally, through organizations like BBBS, and informally, by any adult meaningfully involved in the life of a child. Informal mentors could be teachers, coaches, neighbors, or other community members. And evidence shows that all of these healthy relationships can have a positive impact on children’s lives.

For success in formal, structured mentoring relationships, Sautter shared that a good mentor:

  • Is consistent
  • Focuses on strengths
  • Actively listens

He explained that a successful youth mentor is more of a companion than someone who teaches or preaches or has a prescriptive set of beliefs about how the mentorship should go.

He said that the word “mentor” can be misleading because it implies having all the answers and that mentors often come to the program with the belief that they either have or need to have “all the answers”. He described with good-humored self-depreciation that despite his limited life experience at age 24, he felt this pressure in his first experience as a youth mentor. He reflected,

I was equipped to be a consistent, positive presence in the life of my first Little Brother. I was not equipped to have all the answers. Now, 20 years later, that continues to be true.

A strong mentor, he explained, “knows that they don’t know everything.” A good mentor supports the young person in recognizing their strengths, and to do so, needs to have a consistent presence; be a good, active listener; and be able to identify and focus on the unique strengths of the child. Sautter shared,

Every youth has a set of assets that they are gifted in life, and a great mentor, in consistently interacting with that child, is going to support the child in recognizing their strengths … focusing first on the positives.

Sautter told a story about an early experience with his first Little Brother Josh that taught him this:

Josh and I were at the circus together. This was 20 years ago, and it was an animal circus, and I know we don’t believe in that today. But, we got free tickets from the organization, and we were able to go to the circus.

We bought some hot dogs, and Josh proceeded to layer on top of his hotdog tons of ketchup, tons of mustard. He puts as much relish as his hot dog could handle on top of it. And, we’re just having a good time. We’re watching the circus eating hotdogs and popcorn. And Josh eats half of his hotdog, and then he starts to wrap his hotdog up into a napkin. He’s getting ketchup all over the place. And then he sticks it in his pocket, and he’s getting ketchup all over the place, mustard, relish all over the place. And I sort of jump on him. I’m like, “Josh, what are you doing! You’re making a mess!” And Josh, straight-faced, says to me, “I was gonna take it home to my mom…because we didn’t have any food at home.”

Reflecting on this experience, Sautter expressed,

That moment is so crystal clear to me. Here I’m jumping on him, I’m almost scolding him, and the greatest strength that Josh had in his life, in my view, was that he was a remarkably giving, charitable person, clearly, seemingly from the day he was born.

As a Big Brother, that was the first time I realized that I didn’t need to teach Josh anything. What I needed to do was to remind him that he was a wonderful kid. He cared about people in his life, and that is the gift that he can offer this world. And as a mentor, I would want other mentors to remember that it is their job to find the gift that the child has and just remind them. Just remind them that is the gift that they can offer the world.

Staying Connected: Mentoring During The Pandemic

It has been a challenging but inspiring year for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado trying to support matches during the pandemic. Families and volunteers have experienced tremendous changes over the past ten months. Families have lost jobs, have needed to move, and have been affected by homelessness. Volunteers have been affected by job loss and transfers as well.

Sautter shared that during this time their goal is to support matches in being able to maintain their relationship and support those who can thrive in this virtual environment. Like in many of our relationships, this has taken the form of using Zoom or FaceTime to connect, playing video games, and even old-school letter writing.

Over the summer, in-person activities were possible with mask-wearing and social distancing, but since the surges this fall, Sautter reported that they are back to virtual and other creative means of checking in several times a week.

He said, “Mentoring is doing a lot of the little things for a long period of time … And through that, we produce remarkable outcomes. At its core, it’s just a kid feeling like somebody out there cares about them.”

A text exchange from one Little Sister illustrates just that: “Even though we can’t see each other, it means the world to me that I’m able to stay in touch with my Big Sister during the pandemic.”

Sautter concluded on this note: “If you know you have people out there who care about you, you are going to be more successful in life. And that’s why I’m inspired to work for a mission like this.”

Getting Involved: BBBSA, National Mentoring Month & More

Make a difference in the life of a child…and your own!

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America nurtures children and strengthens communities by creating and supporting one-to-one relationships. BBBSA’s mission is to “ignite the power and promise of youth,” so that all children are able to reach their full potential. Find out about their programs and how to become a mentor on their website.

National Mentoring Month was launched by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and MENTOR National in 2002 and advocated for more recently by former president Barack Obama in 2016. MENTOR National was also selected by the Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to create the National Mentoring Resource Center (NMRC) in 2013. The NMRC provides technical training and resources on mentoring nationwide using an evidence-based approach to this important work.

MENTOR National is holding the 11th Annual National Mentoring Summit virtually from January 27-29, 2021.

The National Mentoring Resource Center (NMRC) provides a variety of mentoring resources and tools, including the free, downloadable “Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring” toolkit with supplements for mentoring with LGBTQ populations, peer-to-peer, and virtually, among others.

Cevia Yellin

Cevia Yellin

Writer

Cevia Yellin is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon. She studied English and French literature as an undergraduate. After serving two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, she earned her master of arts in teaching English to speakers of other languages. Cevia’s travels and experiences working with students of diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have contributed to her interest in the forces that shape identity. She grew up on the edge of Philadelphia, where her mom still lives in her childhood home.