Adult mentor and teenager
An adult mentor can make all the difference for an “at risk” teenager. Photo courtesy Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego County

When people hear about our difficult childhoods, they often ask us how we were able to lift ourselves out of our circumstances and become successful adults. It wasn’t easy for either of us, but what we both had in common was a caring mentor that believed in us, helping us see beyond our current circumstances and inspiring us to do well in school and reach our full potential.

This is why we are both so passionate about helping children, especially those who are considered “at-risk,” get to that first rung on the ladder to a brighter future — a high school diploma.

Consider these statistics: Nearly 68% of all men in federal prison never earned a high school diploma; 75% of America’s state prison inmates are high school dropouts; nearly 85% of juveniles who face trial in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.

How can we keep kids from dropping out of school and turning to crime? In a word, mentorship. Having a mentor increases a student’s likelihood of graduating from high school and going on to attend college by over 50%.

A mentor can help students deal with some of the challenges that lead to skipping school, poor grades and behavioral issues.  Students who are exposed to trauma and violence have lower school attendance and grades as well as higher rates of suspension and expulsion.  It is a downward spiral, since data shows that rates of suspension from school are highest for students who are from low-income families or who are homeless, which often leads to the student dropping out of school.

It’s proven that mentorship programs, like those provided by Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego County, can make a profound difference in the life of a child — changing the entire trajectory of their life. A trusted adult mentor can instill hope, self confidence, and provide a safe place for children to share their thoughts and feelings.

Most importantly, mentors help children believe in the value of education and make smart choices so they can achieve educational success, as well as helping connect them to social and economic opportunity.

Supporting mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters has a far reaching, positive ripple effect on family and peer relationships, the community, and the economy through a more educated workforce, reduced costs of social welfare programs, and reduced crime rate and incarceration costs.

We believe strongly that a foundation of literacy and education is critical to help a child reach their full potential.  Whether a student chooses to go to trade or vocational school, or a 2- or 4-year college, completing a high school education is an essential building block. And a caring mentor leading the way can drastically improve the chances of a child reaching his or her full potential.

Big Brothers Big Sisters currently has hundreds of children on a waiting list. About 60% come from single-parent households. The majority are low-income, with about 20% from active military families and 10% with an incarcerated parent.

If you are interested in making a meaningful, long-term impact by supporting mentorship in San Diego, apply to be a “Big” mentor or make a contribution.

Mark Powell is a member of the San Diego County Board of Education. Lorie Zapf is CEO Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego County. They wrote this column in recognition of National Mentoring Month.