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    MENTOR Aims to Expand Virtual Mentoring During a Time of Social Distancing

    A first-hand account of what innovation and adaptation look like during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis.

    MENTOR works to advance equity and close the mentoring gap because we believe all young people deserve the opportunity to explore and fulfill their potential. We create solutions that prioritize relationships for young people, help volunteers find youth mentoring opportunities, and leverage the diverse expertise of staff, youth, and local Affiliates to develop resources for quality mentoring, including the foundational Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring. As we mark National Mentoring Day in October, and soon National Mentoring Month in January, we’re continuing our focus on expanding access to meaningful connections for young people within the digital environment – helping ensure that physical distance does not lead to social disconnection.


    Before the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S., most mentors met their mentees in-person. The in-person meetups allowed for private communication and variety in location and activities. Shortly after the country began social distancing to curb the impact of COVID-19, youth mentoring programs began to migrate online. Organizations that lacked access to secure, reliable, and affordable tech resources suspended their programs. Even before the pandemic, young people were experiencing isolation. Social distancing and the collective trauma related to COVID-19, rising xenophobia, racial injustice, and economic uncertainty has the potential to compound this isolation. Quality mentoring relationships are effective in processing these conditions and cultivating feelings of belonging because they provide young people with interpersonal connections founded on shared interest and/or experience. Mentees can, if they choose, lean on their mentors for advice and support as they navigate a world that is constantly changing. It was crucial for MENTOR to support continued connection for as many youths as possible.


    After a survey of the mentoring field at the beginning of the pandemic, MENTOR learned that 90% of mentoring programs would be interested in a free and established e-mentoring platform, and 88% were interested in a platform that provided safe and monitored communications between mentors and mentees. 


    In response, MENTOR partnered with iCouldBe and CricketTogether, two long-time partners and leaders in the virtual mentoring space, to launch the Virtual Mentoring Portals. These free and secure platforms allow programs to provide an unstructured or structured environment for existing mentee and mentor pairs to meet digitally. These platforms also enable volunteers to meet with students for more informal mentoring opportunities. Within one week, we saw interest from a collective of mentoring programs that serve over 40,000 youth. 


    The Friends Program in New Hampshire is currently using CricketTogether. Within the platform, they organize readings and letter exchanges for their mentor/mentee pairs. Online, the mentors and mentees read the stories individually and exchange letters with reactions and personal updates. The shift has been transformative. Youth Mentor Coordinator, Alyssa Anderson explains, “Under normal circumstances, in person, with lots of other kids around, often mentees have been too shy or overwhelmed to express any deeper feelings that they might have. Through this letter exchange, they have the opportunity to share those feelings. It’s deepened our mentoring relationships as a result.” 


    Further, CricketTogether has provided Anderson with greater visibility into the mentor/mentee relationships so that she can keep a pulse on everyone’s experience. Deadlines offer mentors the schedule flexibility to write letters to their mentees, whereas, in the past, mentors had to navigate scheduling conflicts with in-person meetings and possibly miss an opportunity to see their mentees. Lastly, mentees are excited because they can maintain regular contact with their mentors. 


    In addition to the Virtual Mentoring Portals, MENTOR has collaborated with partners in the field to produce several resources to help mentors cultivate and maintain meaningful relationships with their mentees. These efforts included expanding the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring with an e-mentoring guide. We also curated tips for text-based communications, trauma-informed mentoring tips, and lastly, toolkits for youth mentoring programs to leverage for fundraising and program development. As the country continues to navigate the layered crises of COVID-19 and injustice, MENTOR will continue to invest in and share resources to expand access to quality mentorship, addressing isolation head-on and calling for further investment in the relationships that are especially essential in times of tumult and uncertainty.

    Written by Melissa Hines, Storytelling Communications Manager at MENTOR