Youth-initiated mentoring (YIM), an innovative approach in which youth select adults to serve as mentors in formalized matches, could redress recognized issues mentoring programs face such as volunteer attrition, premature match closures, and low to modest effect sizes, particularly for higher risk youth. Drawing on mentors already embedded in youth’s social networks, YIM may contribute to the more rapid development of close, meaningful, and stable mentor-youth relationships. However, YIM has only begun to be studied empirically, and no research to-date has examined the development of YIM relationships over time.
Youth (n= 19) and mentors (n= 23) representing 25 matches were recruited from 3 mentoring programs implementing YIM for systems-involved youth, referred by foster care or juvenile justice diversion programs. Youth were racially diverse and ranged from 13-25 years old. Most mentors were White (74%) and were 21-65 years old. Participants were interviewed at the beginning of the formal mentoring relationship and at least 12 months into the match. Interviews were coded thematically (Braun & Clarke, 2006) and narrative summaries were constructed to examine the nature and quality of these relationships over time from the perspectives of both mentors and youth.
Based on our analysis of the participants’ narratives, the relationships were grouped into three major categories: (a) active (15 matches), (b) standby (5 matches), and (c) poor or terminated (5 matches). The active matches were in regular communication, and both the mentors and youth described a variety of ways that the mentors were providing meaningful support to the youth. These mentors described themselves, and were described by their mentees, as flexible and persistent and as taking a strengths-based approach to the relationship. This coupled with the high levels of trust in the mentors described by the youth in these groups seemed to contribute to the durability and meaningfulness of these relationships. The standby matches were not in consistent contact at follow-up, but the youth expressed confidence that the mentor was available and would be responsive if they needed to reach out. In contrast, the poor matches represented relationships that never transitioned from their previous relationships into mentoring relationships as intended by the YIM program, often because of changes in life circumstances, but sometimes because of misunderstandings about the intentions of the program.
Conclusions and Implications
These different relationship types offer insight into how YIM relationships develop over time and the kinds of support that can be provided within different relational structures. The youths’ sense of confidence in the ongoing availability of their mentors, even among the matches that were not in consistent contact at follow-up, was striking and seemed to stem from the mentor and youth having had a prior relationship. Implications for the potential for YIM to improve relationship stability for systems-involved youth will be discussed along with implications for future research.