For about eight years Michael Wright has called Elliot Breshears his Big Brother.
The two met after Breshears, a University of Arizona undergraduate at the time, heard that Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson needed male mentors. Michael, now a 17-year-old senior at The Rising School, was around 9 years old.
Over Frisbee tosses and water-park trips, they mastered this Big Brother/Little Brother thing.
“We have progressed from mentoring to now it’s more of an adult friendship,” said Breshears, who is 27 years old and a student in the UA College of Medicine. “Mike’s my friend and my confidant, and we can both talk about things that are difficult and communicate on an adult level, so it’s really shifted along the way.”
But many kids aren’t so lucky.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tucson has a waiting list of about 140 children and youth. Twenty girls are waiting for matches. The rest are boys, said Marie Logan, the organization’s CEO.
The public call for male mentors — especially men of color — that Breshears answered still resounds.
On Monday, Aug. 21, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild will announce an initiative encouraging more Tucsonans to partner with agencies making a difference in the lives of our young people.
“If we can keep young people in school, and if we can get young people to involve themselves in extracurricular activities, and if we can move young people toward graduating high school and then on to postsecondary activity, whatever that may be, that makes for a stronger community,” Rothschild said.
He sees this mentoring push as complementary to other initiatives, such as fundraising for Literacy Connects’ Reading Seed and its recruitment of in-school reading coaches, and Steps to Success, a partnership with Tucson Unified School District to knock on doors of recent high school dropouts and encourage them to reconsider graduation.
The mayor’s office has found that many mentoring organizations in our city don’t have enough men of color stepping up for young boys. So while this is a call to the entire community, Rothschild is especially asking this specific demographic to volunteer.
“It always helps if somebody has walked a mile in those shoes,” Rothschild said. “One of the things about this call-out is it can take place on all sorts of levels — from troubled youth to kids with great potential to go forward to university — if they just have somebody who can help guide them.”
Getting involved is easy. The mayor’s office has compiled a list of about 10 organizations that already match Tucson’s youth with mentors. At mayorrothschild.com/mentor you can peruse that list and find a fit for you. Fill out the form and you’ll receive additional information about organizations of interest.
Why our city
Because mentoring involves the community in the future of its youth, it has the potential to reduce high school dropouts and the number of young people who are not working or attending school, identified as “disconnected youth” in a 2014 report by the Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable, a initiative of the nonprofit research agency WestEd.
Based on 2012 data from graduating classes in 10 Arizona cities and from the state as a whole, the report estimated Tucson’s dropout rate at 22 percent and its disconnected youth rate at 21 percent, about the same as Arizona numbers of 20 percent and 22 percent, respectively.
Oro Valley had a dropout rate of 13 percent and a disconnected youth rate of 17 percent, and Sahuarita had a dropout rate of 23 percent and a disconnected youth rate of 20 percent.
A new draft relying on 2015 data suggests Tucson rates could be slightly lower.
In Tucson, the estimated dropout rate causes roughly a $435 million lifetime economic loss, and the disconnected youth rate causes an $8.5 billion lifetime economic loss, the report said.
“Economic loss means if you’re not a high school graduate, your earning potential, your salary, your wages are much lower ... so there’s an economic loss for an individual,” said Paul Koehler, director of the Policy Center at WestEd. “The second part of that is if you’re making less money, you’re contributing less in taxes ... which affects quality of life for everyone.”
Adults who don’t finish high school also increase public and private spending on health, crime and welfare, the report found.
That’s where mentors come in.
compassionate adult has lasting influence
Corvell Littleton, 18, started going to a Boys and Girls Clubs of Tucson clubhouse about five years ago to hang out with friends and play basketball. He said the connections he made with men at the Jim and Vicki Click Clubhouse kept him from continuing on a dangerous path after an arrest for fighting his junior year of high school.
Playing basketball and shooting pool, clubhouse director Marcus Twine and youth program director David Lopez grew close to the teen.
“David sat me down and talked to me when he heard what happened and helped me understand what could happen if I keep going down the path I was going down.” Littleton wrote in a private Facebook message. “When Marcus came ... he talked to me and told me that I should get more involved with the Boys and Girls Club and talk to the kids to help try and stop them from going in the wrong path.”
Having men he trusted who stuck with him gave Littleton a glimpse of a path he hadn’t yet imagined. Although he didn’t graduate on time, he plans to soon and dreams of attending college. He’s finishing school at the Fred G. Acosta Job Corps Center and is working toward becoming a certified nursing assistant.
“He’s completely turned around. Now he is doing Job Corps and we talk every day — and that’s just one story,” Twine said.
Don McNeill, executive director of Mentoring Tucson’s Kids and One on One Mentoring, said that in his 22 years leading local mentoring organizations, he has seen the majority of kids with qualified mentors graduate high school and “go on to be successful in something.” Most don’t “get involved in drinking, drugging or anything illegal,” he said. “They don’t need it. Their needs are being met.”
Thinking about life after high school
The UA’s College of Education has a program that places undergraduate students in under-resourced middle school classrooms.
Called Project SOAR, the class aims to build relationships between middle school and college students. SOAR stands for Student Outreach for Access and Resiliency.
“We’re there to provide support and guidance and put the possibility of education after high school ... into their minds,” said Mary Irwin, director of Project SOAR and assistant professor for the College of Education.
Because Project SOAR works in about a dozen schools that often don’t have the time or staffing to promote college readiness, working with a mentor may be the primary way some students are able to visualize college — especially if they come from a background without a culture of postsecondary education, she said.
And yet even the SOAR program sees a shortage of men — male students make up about 25 percent of the class.
SOAR, and other mentoring programs, aim for more diversity in all areas among these role models.
“It’s unfortunate in the Native American and African-American and Hispanic communities, because of poverty and other challenges involved ... these young men and women may not have those role models,” said Arlene Benavidez, executive director of the Metropolitan Education Commission, which helps students navigate the steps required to get to college through its Regional College Access Center. “For those individuals from those groups who have been able to experience some success to be role model for these youth, it’s important.”
Mentoring was choice
When researching how to best spur Tucson’s young people on toward college, work and a productive postgrad life, the mayor’s office decided mentoring, not scholarships, would “be more sustainable long term and have a bigger impact,” Rothschild said.
While connecting students with scholarships could come later, for now the emphasis is on building life-changing relationships.
The mayor’s office is also forming a leadership council to recruit mentors specifically from African-American and Hispanic communities. Rothschild hopes the faith community can play a role.
“Whatever we can add by creating this enthusiasm, I think it’s going to change lives,” he said.
He is also encouraging employers to recruit mentors and create spaces for young people to intern and encounter real-world mentors.
“I come from poverty, and when I was 18 years old, I got a job at a phone company, and those professionals became my role models and my mentors,” the Metropolitan Education Commission’s Benavidez said. “It was through their influence that I realized what I needed to do. Mentoring can be in a school setting, a work setting, a church setting, through the community or a formal mentoring program.”
Whatever the setting, the impact is powerful — and lasting.
“One positive person can make the world of a difference for a young child, and I think we underestimate how powerful that is,” Benavidez said. “I think if we go back and interview students, they’ll always mention an adult who took a special interest in them ... One positive person can do so much good in the life of another.”