Shared Mentoring Activities Strengthen Connections and Increase Impact
MAY 19, 2016
BY: SETH EHRLICH, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SOS OUTREACH
In 1995, SOS Outreach (SOS) began its activity-based programming when a pilot group of 15 metro-Denver youth were brought to the mountains to try snowboarding for the first time. Over 20 years later, 49,281 underserved youth between the ages of 8 and 18 have come through SOS Outreach programs. Since beginning solely with snow sports, the SOS curriculum has expanded to include summer adventure activities, leadership training, community service projects, and mentoring opportunities. Across all programs that are provided, the goal is to enable youth to unleash their potential to thrive.
SOS got to where we are today with an original focus on providing an introduction to the outdoors and core values. We then expanded to include a mentoring program based on our youth asking “what’s next?” when they completed the initial introductory program. This, combined with external research and internal evaluation results, demonstrated that a longer-term program would increase our impacts. During that time, we learned a lot about the impact of the unique blend of outdoor activity, adult mentorship, service learning, and leadership development that our programs provide.
“Throughout my tenure with SOS, I have witnessed firsthand the significant opportunity that exists when you’re able to combine positive adult mentorship with shared activity. I challenge you to consider how you can increase the impact of your mentoring programs by providing opportunities for your mentors to come together with your youth participants in a space that has defined expectations and shared opportunities for learning. There are three primary impacts of this unique structure that mentoring programs looking to incorporate shared outdoor experiences should keep in mind:
- Activity-based mentoring strengthens relationship development by building a bond between the mentor and mentee around the common ground of the shared activity. The relationship is in a position to grow from that shared platform into personal/academic supports. We’ve seen in SOS that we are able to break down a lot of the initial challenges that exist in relationship development with shared activities, because the matches have the opportunity to share their passion for the outdoors or what they learned during a service project. As a result, many of those early “butterflies” disappear, as well as the common challenge of stilted conversations.
- When offering activity-based mentoring, mentees’ connection to and investment in the program can be strengthened within a larger group. The activity provides the opportunity to expand the benefits of the relationship beyond the individual mentor/mentee dynamic, into a cohort of participants who all support each other through the program. As a result, there is a greater connection to the overall program, promoting continued participation within the curriculum and easing the transition for new mentors, should existing mentors move on. At SOS, our mentor program is a four year progressive program for our participants. On average, 25% of our mentors stay through the full four years. However, we’re successful at retaining participants in the program year to year because their bond extends over and above the individual relationship with their mentor as they connect with the group itself.
- There are significant demonstrated results in participation in the activity itself. SOS originally saw the activity portion of our curriculum as the hook for maintaining engagement between our youth and the program. We have since seen the activity portion demonstrate itself as a core component of the difference that we are making through life skills and personal development. Youth are able to achieve the goals that they set forth for themselves in the activity, and their mentor is able to help them achieve these objectives to increase their self-esteem. When participants are out on the slopes skiing, or on the trail hiking, there is a lot of down time that provides ideal platforms to extend the conversations about lessons learned and ties to their lives. Furthermore, we’ve seen that the activity has increased our ability to recruit mentors, because we’re providing an opportunity for them to readily share their personal passions while making a difference in the lives of their community’s youth.
If you’re interested in expanding your mentoring program to include structured activities, start by giving significant thought to what makes the most sense for complementing your organization’s goals and existing programs. Maybe it is an outdoor activity. It could also be service projects, leadership training, or career preparedness, among a host of other activities. To be successful, the activity should not be something on the periphery of your program. It should be developed as a component of the program and have capacity built around it to ensure that the experience promotes the intended outcomes. Without this intentionality, the relationship can quickly be reduced to just being about the activity and not addressing any other goals of the organization.
Yes, there are some significant challenges. However, if you start by working with the desired outcomes in mind, you will be prepared to respond to all of these obstacles effectively. Do not think that you need to create the activity internally. If you’re interested, there are a number of organizations out there who specialize in providing these activities, whether they are outdoor, field-based, court-based, service-based or leadership-based. They would be ideal partners for your mentoring program and would be positioned to alleviate the challenges and address risk while providing a high quality program. Mentoring programs, in turn, can serve as great partners to these activity-based organizations, with their focus on screening participants and building in program support for volunteers. Consider how a partnership with an organization that focuses on delivering a high-quality activity experience might strengthen the work of your mentoring organization.
The challenge of incorporating activity into your program is transformative. Ten years after starting with SOS, I am fortunate to have the ability to support life-changing opportunities for thousands of youth annually, across summer and winter outdoor adventure programming.
Founded in 1993, SOS Outreach is headquartered in Eagle County, Colorado, with eight additional program sites across Colorado, Utah, California, Oregon and Washington. SOS enables participants to progress from one to two day programs to four-year leadership programs, complete with continuous adult mentorship and filled with adventure sports. SOS utilizes a progressive curriculum, with each year’s activities building on those learned previously. SOS youth come from different backgrounds yet share one passion: a love for the outdoors. SOS partners with a variety of school districts and youth-serving agencies who are instrumental in recruiting youth who they believe will benefit most from participating in SOS programs. SOS’s diverse participants include youth from low-income families, families who speak English as a second language, and youth with academic and social difficulties.