She is the belle of the ball; resplendent in a magnificent full-length evening gown with glittering accessories. Her hair has been done professionally – perhaps for the first time in her 18 years of life – and her radiant smile reflects a heart that has quite literally never been happier. Tomorrow she will return to her dormitory and the drudgery of life in an orphanage, but right now she is a princess whose dream of attending her Matric dance like all the other girls – has come true.
He is a little boy with enormous talent. Give him half a chance and he will perform for you. A tune played on the radio becomes the backing track to a dance routine; the actors in the TV programmes he loves to watch are mimicked with ease. Even at 13 he is a consummate performer. His drama teacher says he shows genuine promise; he could go on to write his drama exams; sing, dance, act – make a career out of it if he wanted to. Each week after his private acting class he goes back to the children’s home and shows the other kids what he has learnt. They clap and cheer wildly for him.
She has a chronic illness and battles to take her medication. She has no Mum or Dad to remind her so it just gets forgotten. As a result her health is deteriorating rapidly. But the good news is that that was 6 months ago. Now? She takes her meds daily and is happier and healthier than she has ever been. She will always need to manage her illness – but she will live a full and productive life.
These are just some of the stories – some of the many stories – of children whose lives have been transformed through the power of mentorship. These kids are all part of our Bright Stars mentorship programme which pair’s adult mentors with vulnerable kids in need of love and support.
The adults who mentor these children are ordinary folk like you and I; some are themselves young – just out of school; others have kids of their own; several are older folk – retired but eager to use their experience and wisdom to make a difference. All of them have this in common: they acknowledge that our children are our future.
In my research on ways that we can individually act to change our society and create peace and stability, mentorship has repeatedly presented itself as arguably the most powerful tool we have at our disposal. Whilst initiatives and programmes are often effective in treating symptoms, mentorship seems to go to the very heart of the matter and treat the cause.
The reality is that when kids have no adult role model; no respected elder holding their hand on their journey of life – they invariably derail. We often use the metaphor of a fence on which all kids sit. If they are unloved, uncared for and without boundaries they will fall onto the wrong side of that fence. This side is a life in which childhood dreams of Matric dances and becoming a star are replaced with a life of unwanted pregnancies, drugs, alcohol, gangs and crime.
However, statistics prove that the simple act of mentoring a child often has the effect of causing them to fall onto the right side of the fence; the side on which dreams can be pursued, healthy relationships developed and a fulfilled life led.
And what does it take? A child who has someone who asks her the simple question, “how was school today” is exponentially more likely to finish school to Matric level than one who is never asked that question. Imagine if all of us adults committed to just one child other than our own and asked them that simple question. The effect would be huge.
Mentorship is something we can all do regardless of our age or how much time we have on our hands. In terms of the Bright Stars programme we train up our mentors, match them with a suitable youngster near them and ask them to spend just one hour a week with that kid for a minimum of one year. Within this structure we see our best results.
And will you have to arrange for your mentee to attend her Matric dance? Will you have to organize private acting classes or encourage them to take their medication on a daily basis? No not at all. But you may find that as your relationship grows you will be moved to help them become the best they can be; you will want to help make their dreams come true and you will want to help them live full and productive lives.
What I know from experience is this; when we help kids in this way it is not only them that benefit. We ourselves change and become better and happier versions of ourselves.
It is just how it works.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
The next Bright Stars training session is on Saturday 13 September. For more information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org