Research has proven that strong mentoring programs help youths make healthy decisions, avoid drugs and other risky behaviors, and stay on track to graduate from high school.
This past year, Berkshire United Way supported eight youth-focused programs with a mentoring component.
Karen, a participant in the Playwright Mentoring Project program at Barrington Stage Company said, "The biggest thing I've learned from doing Playwright Mentoring Project is to believe in myself and work as a team. It was hard for me to overcome my stage fright and being anti-social, but I enjoyed making new friends."
The estimated reach of the mentoring programs funded, in part, by Berkshire United Way is 222 youths. It's a good start, but it's not enough.
The Prevention Needs Assessment Survey is completed every other year by eighth, 10th and 12th graders in public schools throughout Berkshire County. Since the inception of this survey in 2006, a data point that has always stood out is just how few of our county youths feel valued for their participation in community-based activities. In 2015, that figure was 30 percent — this is 17 points below the national average for their peers and there has been a downward trend in this data point since 2011 — something needs to change.
In response to this information, Berkshire United Way's Positive Youth Development Impact Council and Berkshire Children and Families, with input and participation from many county youths, youth-serving organizations and community partners, developed Humans of the Berkshires, a campaign aimed at featuring the diverse talents and interests of young people of the county.
"After reviewing the PNAS data with our community coalitions we realized the need to develop a way to recognize youth for their contributions to the community," said Nataly Garzon, coordinator of positive youth development at Berkshire United Way.
While the attention youth receive in schools, programs, families and their community is incredibly important, research indicates that it is meaningful relationships that have the highest impact on achievement.
Jean Rhodes, director, Center for Evidence-based Mentoring says, "Virtually every aspect of human development is fundamentally shaped by interpersonal relationships. So it stands to reason that when close and caring relationships are placed at the center of a youth intervention, as is the case in mentoring programs, the conditions for healthy development are ripe."
Mentoring is one example of how meaningful relationships create opportunities for positive youth development. A young man in Greenagers' middle school program for underserved students was having great difficulty within his peer group. He was eventually removed from the program for disrupting the group, but was offered the opportunity to work with high school crews, on a volunteer basis, through the Community Work Initiative.
The result far exceeded anyone's expectations. The high school students became mentors to this young man, resulting in a productive and engaging end to a situation that was heading in the wrong direction.
As a community we need to engage in important conversations and planning between schools, social service providers, businesses and faith-based communities, as well as political leadership, parents, concerned citizens and most importantly youths themselves to ensure young people are afforded the opportunities to aspire to successful futures.
Berkshire United Way brings a variety of these groups together and invites others to join us at our community coalitions, where we collectively strategize on how to enhance programming, increase collaboration, take mentoring to scale so more teens have access, and provide opportunities for youths to build meaningful relationships with adults, so they stay on track to graduate from high school and progress toward financially stable futures.
Members of the community are also encouraged to get involved by liking the Humans of the Berkshires Facebook page and following Humans of the Berkshires on Instagram.
If you would like to nominate an individual between the ages of 14 and 22 for Humans of the Berkshires, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about becoming involved in our youth-focused work at Berkshire United Way, contact Nataly Garzon, coordinator of positive youth development at 413-442-6948 or via email at email@example.com.
Kristine Hazzard is president and CEO of Berkshire United Way, berkshireunitedway.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.