Bright Idea: Mentoring Programs Do Double-Duty Community Service

Photograph of young people cleaning graffiti off a wall.

You operate a mentoring program, matching caring adult mentors with young people who need support and guidance. You serve lots of young people and families, strengthening your community in the process. But have you ever thought about stepping up your program’s efforts to help your community in a whole new way?

Mike Daniels did. And now mentors and mentees—even guardians and staff—from Youth Connections in Atlanta meet regularly to clean up communities, prepare meals in homeless shelters and package food to deliver to home-bound seniors.

“Our goal is to make matches, monitor them and sustain them. We know that,” says Daniels, who is executive director of Youth Connections. “But we just think it’s important to teach kids to give back and help others.”

Daniels’ organization is one of several across the country integrating community service into mentoring children of prisoners

programs. Typically, another local nonprofit provides logistical support or supplies for a community service project. The mentoring program provides the volunteers. Youth Connections has partnered in this way with many local organizations, including Hands on Atlanta and Project Open Hand.

We spoke with folks promoting double-duty community service to get their advice on how to collaborate with local organizations and get mentors and young people excited to volunteer.

Engage partners. To do that, Doris Long, mentoring program director at Little Dixie Community Action Agency in Antlers, OK, has regular breakfast meetings with leaders of local agencies to share ideas, strengthen relationships or “just eat.” Invite other organizations to your events, and when you’re invited to theirs, do your best to attend and be supportive.

When you and another group (or groups) decide to work together, draft a written agreement, such as a memorandum of understanding or a commitment letter, says Gail Lee, program supervisor at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern Nevada. Doing so reinforces to you, your partners and the outside world that you’re serious about your partnership.

Call on mentors. Include community service opportunities in weekly or biweekly e-mails to mentors. Then, to really boost participation, follow up by phone. Daniels’ organization uses an automated calling service, known as “robocalling,” to let folks know when a community service opportunity is coming up. The service is inexpensive, he says (up to 200 calls for under $20), and helps increase attendance.

Help young people get the message. Some programs give prizes to young people for participating. After one community clean-up, Youth Connections asked young people to write about their experiences that day; youth with the best essays received awards. Most young people said they enjoyed giving back to the community, and it made them feel good.

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Photograph courtesy of the Corporation for National & Community Service.

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