“You’re going to need something to clean those fish.” My friend then handed me a brand-new Swiss Army knife, still in the package. He had just taught me the basics of fly-fishing in beautiful mountain springs in northwest Colorado, and now we were preparing that day’s catch for dinner.
We spent a couple of days alone camping and fishing, but for me it was an opportunity to learn from someone whom I admired for his knowledge of nature.
This was just one of many such occasions during my teen years where I benefitted from the guidance of this man I now consider a mentor—although I was unfamiliar with the term at the time. I had the wonderful opportunity to spend many hours with this man cross-country skiing, hiking and talking during this key time in my life, and now look back to realize how important his influence was on me. I ended up going to the same college he did, and his help in preparing me before attending proved to be invaluable.
However, I respected more than his knowledge. His responsible, mature example, along with his kind, giving spirit, showed me what I wanted to emulate in my life. He mentored how to live, and this is perhaps the greatest gift a mentor can give.
What is a mentor? One dictionary defines a mentor as “an experienced and trusted adviser,” (The New Oxford American Dictionary, Third Edition, Oxford University Press). Strictly speaking, the role of advisor does encompass one facet of a mentor, such as when one teaches another about various aspects of a vocation. This type of mentoring can be invaluable to someone who is trying to acquire a skill or break into a particular field.
However, mentoring can be much more than that. According to the National Mentoring Partnership, “At its most basic level, mentoring helps because it guarantees a young person that there is someone who cares about them. A child is not alone in dealing with day-to-day challenges” (“The Value of Mentoring,” Mentoring.org).
Caring takes mentoring beyond the role of “advisor” and elevates it to a relationship in which the mentor becomes personally invested in the long-term wellbeing of the mentee. Mentors demonstrate over time—perhaps even many years—that their relationships with the ones being mentored really do matter.
The fact is we all need the help of others as we grow to adulthood. Everything we know comes from others, and those we admire and respect the most shape much of our worldview. Especially during our formative years, a strong mentor can make a substantial difference in the direction of our lives. For young people from fractured families, a caring mentor can be a matter of life and death.
For me, having a mentor enriched the sense of care that I already felt from my parents. Yet a good mentor can in some ways even take the place of an absent or disinterested parent. One story of successful mentoring from the National Mentoring Partnership tells of James Mackay, a young man whose father was in prison when he was born. James grew up much like his father, surrounded by gangs and drugs. His little brother died in gang violence, and his mother was distraught almost to the point of suicide (“Abrigal and James,” Mentoring.org).
James was a high school dropout with no positive role models, and his future looked bleak. He heard about YouthBuild USA, a program that works with low-income young people to get their high school diplomas or GEDs while learning construction skills building affordable housing. Working with YouthBuild, James met Abrigal, an older man who spent ten years in prison and had a similar background as James. While in prison, older men challenged Abrigal and became father figures, helping him to change his life around.
“James was a young man I saw that needed help,” Abrigal says. “I figured I could be that help.” James now has his own apartment and is enrolled in school, pursuing an associate’s degree (ibid.).
One lesson from this story is that those who once were mentored can become effective mentors themselves. Perhaps they make the best mentors because they understand the value in mentoring. In this way, they are able to give back what they received, and possibly inspire others to do the same.
You need not be in the same situation as James to benefit from mentors. As I discovered during my teen years, forming a relationship with a respected, knowledgeable and caring older person can often enhance a young person’s life.
Sadly, we live in an age where some older people try to take advantage of younger people. Be sure to be wise in your choice of mentors. A mentor who tries to draw you into activities that benefit him but that put you at risk is not a proper mentor. A mentor who pushes you into activities that you know are illegal, or that are against God’s law, should be avoided. If your relationship with a mentor causes friction with other adults in your life, be sure to seek good counsel, and trust that those who are already proven to have your best interest in mind may be right in discouraging you from a relationship that may cause harm.
Thankfully, there are many different ways to find wonderful mentors who can add immeasurably to your life. Perhaps you already know some people in your neighborhood, church or school who would enjoy the opportunity to teach a skill, share their life experiences or simply spend time with you. If there is one such person who already fills this role for you, appreciate the opportunity you have been given, and try to soak up as much as you can from this individual.
There are many youth agencies available to provide mentoring to those without other resources. A search for such agencies in the United States is available on the Mentoring.org Web site. If you live outside the U.S., check for similar organizations in the country where you live.
Perhaps you are at a place in your life where you can take someone under your wing to become a mentor yourself. Many older teens can be positive role models for younger children, able to help them to gain confidence and ability. If you find yourself able to be such an influence, look for opportunities to help others around you.
While looking for mentors, be sure not to overlook the special help that is always available to anyone at any time. Jesus set the perfect example of one who was all about giving for the benefit of others, and is now available to help those who seek Him. Perhaps the best way to ensure success is to learn how Jesus handled Himself in various situations. The New Testament gospel accounts record His actions and words that He said brought life (John 6:63). By striving to live as He lived, you will always be following the best possible mentor (1 John 2:6).