Saving Lives & Inspiring Youth (S.L.I.Y): A Cross-Age Peer Mentoring Program

S.L.I.Y.The Saving Lives & Inspiring Youth (S.L.I.Y.) project is a cross age peer mentoring program in which high school youth from severely disadvantaged communities in Chicago have the opportunity to mentor younger peers over the course of one year. This program, funded by the Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and managed by Loyola University Chicago, began in late 2014 and currently serves the communities of Bronzeville, Englewood, South Lawndale and North Lawndale. The overarching goals of this project are to foster positive youth development and reduce negative outcomes related to violence exposure among African- and Latino-American youth from low-income, urban neighborhoods. By providing constructive spaces for peers at different developmental stages to learn from each other on a long-term basis, S.L.I.Y. strives to capitalize on the value of culturally relevant peer influence in order to help lower rates of youth violence and increase pro-social influences. Matching peers based on their shared environment and gender, as well as at least a two-year age gap, is expected to enhance trust, empathy, and connection within each pair, thus accelerating and strengthening these mentoring relationships. S.L.I.Y creates a much-needed positive social network with the opportunity to continue spontaneously in the communities it serves, advancing its goal of becoming a sustainable intervention for youth living amidst numerous stressors.

Mentoring Model

LoyolaS.L.I.Y. is a cross-age peer mentoring program that was established in 2015 with a grant from OJJDP. The Risk and Resilience Lab at Loyola University Chicago is designing, implementing and simultaneously evaluating this mentoring program, which serves over 300 youth, including 142 mentors (38% males, mean age = 17) and 159 mentees (48% male; mean age = 12). The program has been implemented at six sites across three low-income, high violence neighborhoods in Chicago and is starting in a fourth. Each site is based at a location in the community that is easily accessible to mentors and mentees, including elementary and high schools, churches, and organizations offering after-school programs.

The goal of the program is to build relationships between middle-school-aged youth and high-school youth within the same communities, encouraging positive youth development and learning from one another. Mentor-mentee matches meet once per week for one hour, engaging in program curriculum designed by a multidisciplinary team with input from youth in the program. Following each mentoring session, mentors debrief with staff for an hour. In addition, there are periodic programs to enhance social and cultural opportunities for S.L.I.Y. youth, whose environments lack healthy recreation and social support resources. Because mental health care is so sparse in the communities that S.L.I.Y. serves, and because multiple experiences with victimization and trauma are so prevalent, S.L.I.Y. also provides crisis intervention counseling sessions to students who demonstrate the most serious need.

S.L.I.Y utilizes mentoring best practices and a systematic curriculum, which is regularly adjusted based on youth feedback, and which will be available to practitioners interested in implementing this model. In addition to operating the program, its developers are evaluating the impacts of S.L.I.Y. through a research evaluation study. In addition to multiple types of qualitative data, quantitative data are collected from both participants and matched non-participants at three time points.

The program and research study are run by Dr. Maryse Richards (Department of Psychology) and Dr. Katherine Tyson-McCrea (School of Social Work) of Loyola University Chicago. Project staff are comprised of post-baccalaureates and graduate and undergraduate students from multiple disciplines, including social work, psychology, sociology, political science, business, and biology. Each staff member is trained in their respective roles and receives ongoing development in trauma-informed group and individual services and clinical consultation.

Staff work to build partnerships with community organizations in order to recruit high school students as mentors for the program. Mentors are chosen based on interviews and recommendations from school staff or community collaborators. They receive a multi-part training on civic engagement, communication skills, conflict management, positive youth development, and relationship-building. In addition to these trainings, mentors receive ongoing instruction and support during the one-hour debriefing sessions following each mentoring session, with topics such as communication skills and stress management.

By utilizing mentors and mentees from similar backgrounds who are close in age, the cross-age peer mentoring model addresses some of the limitations of one-to-one, youth-adult mentoring relationships, which include limited mentor time, generational gaps, and differences in backgrounds and relatable experiences. Engaging high school students as mentors allows both the mentors and mentees to benefit from the same resources. S.L.I.Y. seeks to maximize its impact by developing partnerships with individuals and organizations within the community, which lays the groundwork for continuing the program long-term.

Furthermore, by taking a participatory action research approach, the model allows for mentors and community collaborators to engage in the research process, thus improving the validity of findings, building the human capital of participants, and harnessing media for positive goals. Mentors and community collaborators are co-authoring manuscripts, contributing to conference submissions, presenting research findings in both academic and community settings, building website content, and developing pictures of the program through a photovoice project that S.L.I.Y. youth and their mentors created to illustrate the impact of this program.

In addition to building a strong bond between mentors and mentees, the program seeks to improve attitudes towards other youth, leadership skills, self-esteem, self-efficacy, ethnic identity, beliefs about aggression, sense of community at school, future expectations, perceived friendships, and available activities in the neighborhood, as well as reduce mental illness for both mentors and mentees.

S.L.I.Y. Program Evaluation Findings to Date

Mentee outcomes: Over the course of 1 year in the program, higher program attendance has led to strengthened bonds with mentors, increased sense of school community, increased self-esteem, and a strengthened sense of ethnic identity. Additionally, program attendance has predicted an increase in beliefs about non-violence as an effective problem solving strategy, particularly for boys.

Mentor outcomes: After 6 months in the program, higher attendance has predicted increased awareness of activities in mentors’ community, as well as overall more positive perceptions of their neighborhood environment. Additionally, higher attendance has predicted better future expectations and increased perceived social support for boys. The strength of the relationship that mentors have with their mentees has also predicted outcomes in the program—as the relationship grows stronger over the course of the program, mentors are more likely to report better expectations for their future, as well as fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Connections to Evidence-Based Practice

S.L.I.Y.The cross-age peer mentoring model is supported by several youth development theories. Using peer mentors as opposed to adult mentors has been shown to increase ratings of connectedness to school, teachers, or parents (Karcher, 2005; Karcher, Davis, & Powell, 2002; Westerman, 2002), academic achievement (Karcher et al., 2002; Westerman, 2002), graduation rates among Latino-American males (Johnson, Simon, & Mun, 2014), social skills and social competence (Karcher, 2005; Herrera, Kauh, Cooney, Grossman, & McMaken, 2008), behavioral problem reduction (Bowman & Myrick, 1987), positive classroom behaviors, and healthier attitudes about violence (Sheehan, DiCara, LeBailly, & Christoffel, 1999). Mentors themselves, like those from Big Brothers, Big Sisters, have shown improvements in interpersonal skills, personal abilities (e.g., being responsible, reliable, and organized), knowledge of child development, and leadership abilities (Herrera et al., 2008).

This model also functions using the principles of the Positive Youth Development Theory (Larson, 2000; Benson, Scales, Hamilton, & Semsa, 2006), the Social Development Model (O'Donnell, Michalak, & Ames, 1997; Hawkins, Catalano, & Miller, 1992), and Social Interest Theory (Crandall, 1975), all of which stress the importance of the protective power of engaging in meaningful pro-social activities. Overall, this intervention stems from the view that peer mentoring is a sustained, long-term relationship in which the older peer guides the younger mentee’s development in interpersonal skills and self-esteem while creating a sense of connectedness and positive attitudes (Karcher, 2005). The mentoring dosage and organizational support in these types of programs are crucial factors for success (Karcher, 2006). The current S.L.I.Y. project is a modified version of the StandUp!HelpOut! (SUHO) program in which younger youth developed healthy ways to express emotions, mature values, and a more optimistic conception of their future through the empathic and trusting mentoring connection (Bulanda & McCrea, 2012). The youth empowerment, participatory, culturally-relevant, and intensively supportive emphases of the program have shown promise in improving youth engagement, which has been a thorny problem for social and mental health services in impoverished, highly stressed communities (Bulanda & McCrea, 2012; Guthrie, Ellison, Sami, & McCrea, 2014).

Next Steps for S.L.I.Y.

The staff of S.L.I.Y. plan to further implement and sustain the cross-age peer mentoring model at additional sites within the four Chicago communities it currently serves. Academic as well as community-friendly publications and presentations will be disseminated in order to spread awareness of this project, its outcomes, and the best practices that have been developed over the course of implementation. S.L.I.Y. plans to incorporate youth feedback as their important contributions, including their website and photo-documentary, are completed and shared with their communities.

For more information, visit the Risk and Resilience Lab’s S.L.I.Y. website at:

You can view S.L.I.Y.’s youth website, which features spoken word, music, poetry and other works created by S.L.I.Y. youth, here:

Related NMRC Resources:

Additional Resources:


Benson, P. L., Scales, P. C., Hamilton, S. F., & Sesma, A. (2006). Positive youth development: Theory, research, and applications. Handbook of Child Development. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Bowman, R. P., & Myrick, R. D. (1987). Effects of an elementary school peer facilitator program on children with behavior problems. The School Counselor, 34(5), 369-378.

Bulanda, J. and McCrea, K. Tyson. (2012 online, in print, 2013). “The promise of an accumulation of care: Disadvantaged African-American youths’ perspectives about what makes an after school program meaningful.” Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 30, 95-118. Doi: 10.1007/s10560-012-0281-1.

Crandall, J. E. (1975) A scale for social interest. Journal of Individual Psychology, 31, 187-195.

Guthrie, D., Ellison, V., Sami, K., and McCrea, K. Tyson. (2014). “Clients’ hope arises from social workers’ compassion: Young clients’ perspectives on surmounting the obstacles of disadvantage.” Families in Society 95 (2). Doi: 10.1606/1044-3894.2014.95.14.

Hawkins, J. D., Catalano, R. F., & Miller, J. Y. (1992). Risk and protective factors for alcohol and other drug problems in adolescence and early adulthood: Implications for substance abuse prevention. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 64–105.

Herrera, C., Kauh, T. J., Cooney, S. M., Grossman, J. B., & McMaken, J. (2008). High School Students as Mentors: Findings from the Big Brothers Big Sisters School-Based Mentoring Impact Study. Public/Private Ventures.

Johnson, V. L., Simon, P., & Mun, E. Y. (2014). A peer-led high school transition program increases graduation rates among Latino males. The Journal of Educational Research, 107(3), 186-196.

Karcher, M. (2005). The effects of developmental mentoring and high school mentors’ attendance on their younger mentees’ self-esteem, social skills, and connectedness. Psychology in the Schools, 42, 65-77.

Karcher, M. J. (2006). What happens when high school mentors don’t show up? In L. Golden & P. Henderson (Eds.), Case studies in school counseling (pp. 44–53). Alexandria, VA: ACA Press.

Karcher, M. J., Davis, C., & Powell, B. (2002). The effects of developmental mentoring on connectedness and academic achievement. School Community Journal, 12(2), 35-50.

Larson, R. W. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist, 55(1), 170.

O'Donnell, J., Michalak, E. A., & Ames, E. B. (1997). Inner-city youths helping children: After-school programs to promote bonding and reduce risk. Social Work in Education, 19(4), 231– 241.

Sheehan, K., DiCara, J. A., LeBailly, S., & Christoffel, K. K. (1999). Adapting the gang model: Peer mentoring for violence prevention. Pediatrics, 104(1), 50-54.

Westerman, J. J. (2002). Mentoring and cross-age mentoring: Improving academic achievement through a unique partnership. Unpublished dissertation, University of Kentucky, Lexington.

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